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Mapping the Human Heart

Professor Judith McLean, dives deep into the unruly, disruptive and often uncontainable elements of life: love and desire

7 min read

being able to know our deep desires is only possible in hindsight

our deepest desires are always unconscious as Freud suggests, “we can never be masters in our own homes”

art is the best way to demonstrate desire as a concept. Examples used in the piece – Julian Barnes’ novel Levels of Life, Christoph Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Both physicalise and map desire, revealing it through the curves and contours of relationships, time and space

arts purpose is to trace our desires to map the topography of the human heart

Desire as a concept, an abstraction, is fiendishly difficult to articulate, let alone understand cognitively, for it’s a chameleon, altering its shape, texture and colours repeatedly throughout our lifetime.

Perhaps it’s best described as a psychic process, recognised in everyday life by emotions and feelings, often unseen and yet represented by a vast glossary of words and meanings. Its presence is often beyond awareness, masquerading variously as needs or wants, or lack, or wishes, or yearning, or even grief. What Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis teach is as humans we are constantly in the process of deceiving ourselves, pretending that feelings don’t exist or allowing them to support our delusions. Freud’s proposition that we are not masters in our own house points to the difficulty of ever really knowing who we are and what we really desire.

“Grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not grief?”

The work of British writer Julian Barnes helps navigate the maze of desire. When Barnes’ wife Pat Kavanagh died after 29 years together, he wrote of his complete devastation, his grief, his suicidal desires to join her in the afterlife. Levels of Life sheds light on the visceral qualities of desire, how it appears and disappears chameleon-like by concurrently reflecting on his own loss and the ancient myth of young lovers Orpheus and Eurydice.

Both stories echo one another exploring what happens to desire when the love object is no longer physically present, how losing the desired object intensifies desire. Rather than being light and joyous the chameleon appears as a dark, mysterious, buried absence.

Painting by Artist Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

Image Credit: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton

For Barnes, the loss of his wife and his inability to know how and where to place his aching desire torments him. He rationalises his grief: “grief is the negative image of love; and if there can be an accumulation of love over the years, then why not grief”? He yearns for her to be with him again, if not in person at least in his consciousness. He is after all, “her chief rememberer” a title he carries with bitter tenderness. His deep internalisation of Patricia’s absence gives the reader a corporeal sense of his loss revealing how his chameleon manifests as omnipresent, never satiated, existing instead as a deep interminable aching and longing.

Paradoxically for Barnes the aching longing for his beloved and his compulsion to reminisce reveals both an irrational endless desire and simultaneously helps him rationally accept the impossibility of such a desire. Respite comes one night at a London cinema watching the story of Orpheus, a legendary musician and poet who falls deeply in love with Eurydice, a daughter of Apollo. They marry, Eurydice dies and is taken to Hades. Barnes explains:

I went to a London cinema for a direct broadcast from New York’s Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. Beforehand, I did my homework, listened through the piece, libretto in hand. And I thought: this can’t possibly work. A man’s wife dies, and his lamentation so moves the gods they grant him permission to go to the underworld, find her and bring her back. One condition, however, is applied: he must not look her in the face until they are back on earth, or she will be lost to him forever. Whereupon, as he is leading her out of the Underworld, she persuades him to look back at her; whereupon she dies; whereupon he laments her again, even more affectingly, and draws his sword to commit suicide; whereupon the God of love, disarmed by this display of uxoriousness, restores Euridice to life.

At the end of the opera Barnes is initially disbelieving, finding the myth implausible. Yet on reflection as he brings his own narrative of grief to the story, he rethinks his opinion and wonders at the power of art to act as a catalyst and transcend his own lived experience.

I had quite underestimated Orfeo the opera most imaginatively targeted at the griefstruck; and in that cinema the miraculous trickery of art happened again. Of course Orfeo would turn to look at the pleading Euridice – how could he not? Because ‘no one in his senses’ would do so, he is quite out of his sense with love and grief and hope.

For the psychologically minded what the two stories share and speak of is the raw material of desire – love, loss, desire, grief and absence pointing to Adam Phillips idea that “there is something catastrophic about being a person”.

The catastrophe is located in various places: in our being born at all, in our being condemned to death; in our vulnerability as organisms, or in our cruel injustices as political animals; in the scarcity of our natural resources, or in the greedy depredation of them; in our Fall, or in our hubris.

According to clinical psychologist and author the late Stephen A Mitchell, desire and the possibility of falling in love relieve the catastrophe of being human, making it liveable, bearable. Mitchell believed that despite the inevitable loss of love and desire, it is these two abstractions that make life worth not only living, but also worth cultivating and savouring. However Mitchell warns that the consequences are also often constraints, fleetingness, transitoriness as both Barnes’ and Orpheus’ stories demonstrate.

It is the time and constraints that Barnes questions when he asks himself whether given the choice of losing his life by looking back as Orpheus does what he would do. He is unequivocal in his reply.

You lose the world for a glance? Of course you do. That is what the world is for: to lose under the right circumstances. How could anyone hold to their vow with Euridice’s voice at their back?

Image by Artist Gaetano Gandolfi (1784 – 1802)

Image Credit: Gaetano Gandolfi (1784 – 1802)

Barnes questions the very possibility of desire ever being anything but irrational. His elegy suggests that as humans we live under the giant misconception that we’re capable of acting rationally where love and desire are present. He describes how the implausibility of the opera suddenly fell away, and the irrationally of it made sense.

Now it seems quite natural for people to stand on stage and sing at one another, because song was a more primal means of communication than the spoken word – both higher and deeper… yes I thought that’s how life is and should be, let’s concentrate on the essentials… Opera cuts to the chase as death does.

For all its improbability, the opera almost magically makes perfect sense. He enters the artwork, possibilities open up that help alleviate his grief and heartbreak. His pain and desire is validated, it’s acknowledged, witnessed in the strange world of heightened emotions. Barnes comments that it is the putative form of opera that intentionally sets out to break your heart.

“...desire and the possibility of falling in love relieve the catastrophe of being human...”

If breaking hearts is what love and desire promise, then the opera form is a perfect container for Barnes to place his grief. Orpheus and Eurydice physicalise and make public what until now has been a totally private experience for Barnes. In Greek theatre terms Barnes experiences catharsis and instead of suffering by being exposed to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, it reconnects him to life. Perhaps it’s arts purpose to trace one’s desire to be able to map the topography of the human heart.

Dictionaries tell us that desire is a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen. Tracing the etymology of the word is where things get really interesting. The Latin desidero, comes from de + sidus wait for what the stars will bring.

Perhaps in the age of scientism, where the unifying belief is that we can know everything, love and desire exist to remind us that some things in life are unruly, disruptive and often uncontainable.

Main Image Credit: Lora Zombie /



Professor Judith McLean is the Chair in Arts Education, a joint appointment between Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) where she held the role of Scholar in Residence until September 2021. Judith’s career is distinguished by her breadth and diversity of experience as an arts educator, artist and cultural leader across Australia. She is a member of the Australia Council’s Major Performing Arts Panel and Chair of Dancenorth, a contemporary dance company based in Townsville.


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We pay our respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ancestors of this land, their spirits and their legacy. The foundations laid by these ancestors – our First Nations Peoples – gives strength, inspiration and courage to current and future generations, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, towards creating a better Queensland.