The Structure of Desire

Dr. Badrinarayanan Srinivasan
7 min readJul 15, 2020
Rene’ Magritte “The False Mirror”. GIF Source:

B often wondered why people maligned Desire as a problematic emotion or labelled it a dark and malevolent force — while others extolled its virtues as the very ‘giver of life’ and as something that drives all life processes and human actions. Was not Desire the primary force that led to one’s birth, all one’s aspirations, setting up of professional and personal goals, all the striving, the struggle, and eventually ‘success’?

B had always heard that people had desires, that people were possessed by desires, people were full of desires, and so on. It was like saying that someone was full of hunger, or thirst. It implied that there was nothing to begin with and suddenly there was something that was solid and immutable. His own hunch was that desire manifested more gradually and had an ebb and flow to it like the tides.

He resolved to examine this in some detail. B was always curious about how things worked and he regularly took apart clocks and mechanical toys as a child. Since the mechanics of desire was inscrutable in others, he decided to make himself the object of study. He would try and follow the process of how a desire entered him, how it grew, matured, and how it slipped away, in all its intricate detail.

The first thing he noticed was that desire was not a pure, formless force that was directed outwards from within as he had been made to believe. Desire had a form. This form would sometimes be an object, sometimes a person, sometimes an experience — always an imaginary situation or a promised fantasy projected into the future. This fantasy almost always included him — the ‘desirer’ — much like the selfies that tourists take of themselves, smiling beside celebrities or against the backdrop of monuments.

So, the fantasy could be — a) Selfie of the desirer having a relationship b) Selfie of the desirer enjoying a holiday at an exotic location c) Selfie of the desirer winning an award, etc, etc. Sometimes this image also included an ‘audience’. Depending on what the desirer was acquiring and who the audiences were (they could be peers, competitors, or friends) they would be either envious, or crest-fallen, or appreciative and applauding, but never indifferent. Some desires were very private and secretive in nature and depended actively on the ‘absence’ of any audience. Such fantasies were tantalizing simply because ‘no one would ever get to know’. Oh yes! There was also a self (B) who was viewing this whole image and thinking “how wonderful this scene would be if it came true!”

So, the whole process when slowed down to slow motion would play out as follows. It was as though B was watching himself, watching a film that featured B.

Frame 1: B is sitting quietly, engrossed in reading a book.

Frame 2: B feels vaguely uneasy, restless, bored, empty.

Frame 3: B has a fantasy (or remembers one) involving himself, the object of desire, and a suitable audience (optional).

Frame 4: B thinks “compared to now he would be so much happier, calm, stimulated, fulfilled if the fantasy came true…”.

Frame 5: B now thinks he is ‘full of desire’ for the object/ situation. At this point B judges if the fantasy is indeed morally legitimate. If it is found to be inappropriate, he feels guilt and condemns it, but the unfulfilled desire remains as an old wound or scar.

Frame 6: B thinks he cannot be happy, contented, stimulated, fulfilled until his fantasy came true.

Frame 7: B puts down the book and starts pacing. He is unhappy, longing and yearning for the fantasy to come true.

Frame 8: B runs around trying to convert his fantasy into reality. Depending on the scale of the fantasy, this might take hours, days, months, or years. If he fails, he is disappointed and gives it up as sour grapes, but the unfulfilled desire haunts him like an old wound. If he succeeds, the following stages happen.

Frame 9: B has a sense of accomplishment. He is full of happiness, contentment, stimulation, fulfillment. But B notices he is happy, but less because he is living the fantasy. Every realized fantasy is sometimes accompanied by its own baggage of problems. B now remembers a famous Oscar Wilde quote : “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” He suspects he is happy more because he had promised himself that he would be happy if conditions were met. The happiness perhaps came out of a relief from a long pent-up tension.

Frame 10: B’s happiness, contentment, stimulation, fulfillment slowly fades away into indifference, and boredom.

Frame 1: B goes back to reading a book

It became apparent how Frames 1–10 kept repeating themselves in an endless loop — only every time the projected vision changed. However the process remained the same. B was further fascinated by what happened between Frame 1, 2, and 3 — i.e. between peace, uneasiness, and the formation of desire. He decided to slow down and watch carefully. He found that the ‘form’ of the desired first manifested by virtue of its ‘absence’ — as a distinctly perceived vacuum inside him. The form was not always distinct to begin with. The sense of lack and unease was minuscule and vague in the beginning and it grew slowly and began to take shape in time.

Through all this there was a mental compulsion to keep returning to the sense of absence, to know what it is — like the tongue seeking the outline of a missing tooth. Perhaps it is this feeling of absence that consumer culture and shopping malls try to exploit by bombarding us with “Is it this you are looking for?”. When slowed down, it was as though B was watching an aquarium and an innocuous tiny bubble of air rising from the bottom and slowly make its way to the surface. After a while another appeared and very soon there was a steady stream, all collecting in a big bubble near the surface. This big bubble now had a definite form — that of the object/ situation of desire. Desire was nothing more than a ‘negative’ — a virtual mold of the real object or person or situation, waiting to be filled by the ‘real’.

The more B became conscious of the absent ‘form’ the more it seemed to grow. Depending on how often B thought about the absence, it could either remain as a mild irritation in the background, or he could whip himself into a frenzy where the very thought of the absence became unbearably painful. In extreme conditions, no sooner he had thought of it and he would get a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach, and his pulse would race. The bubble of desire stayed just under the surface of the water, boiling for a while. It disappeared when the desire was gratified, but even before that the next bubble had taken its place. What made the tracing of bubbles difficult in day-to-day existence were their sheer profusion and their incredible speed in real time. At any given point in time the water was seething with them. When the water was less agitated, individual bubbles were easier to detect and trace.

Desire could thus start as a harmless wish and grow into monstrous longings, cravings, and yearnings. Many unfulfilled and illegitimate yearnings lay suspended in his memory like air-bubbles trapped in a glass paper weight. In retrospect, it was faintly embarrassing to realize that one felt intense romantic emotions for so many people for whom one felt nothing now. B thought rather than say “I love you”, a more truthful statement would be “Right now there is this gnawing feeling of attraction and longing for you, based entirely on my own projections, but the feeling is fragile and may not to last very long”.

How would someone take this declaration of inconstancy? Was it really fair making false promises and taking the other through an emotional wild goose chase which was bound to end in disappointment and hurt? B became more and more hesitant to follow through his feelings. It was as pointless as trying to build a stone castle on shifting sand dunes.

“Projection of Love”. Source: Author

Strangely, B also discovered that his very act of observing of the mechanics of desire seemed to influence its behavior. His watching himself watching the film had subtly changed the film.To start with, whole process seemed to slow down on its own. There seemed to be larger gaps between bubbles which seemed fewer and far between. The water seemed less agitated and clearer. The projected fantasies seemed less seductive and promising than before. He felt less elated when they came true and less disappointed when they did not. B also felt less guilt and condemnation for his ‘inappropriate’ desires.

He could see that all desires were fundamentally innocent and playful; like children wishing for Santa Claus. His wants became smaller and more manageable — the goals more immediate and tangible, rather than long-term and abstract. He could catch himself fantasizing sooner and this very act seemed to dilute the desirability of the dream and the impulse to act out the fantasy.

He could continue reading the book or drink his tea for a little longer before restlessness overtook him. For the moment he seemed quite content to be suspended in the transparent medium of his own eye-balls –to view the world through the lens, as well as see its inverted projection on his retina. All movies depend on one’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ for one to really enjoy the drama. B’s new-found watchfulness unfortunately seemed to have made a big dent on this ability but also made him more self-sufficient, and relaxed in his own company. The movie could still be enjoyed for its production values.

The first draft of this reflective piece and its sequel “Structure of Self” was written in 2008. A dear friend read them and advised me to study Buddhism. I cannot thank her enough…