Sex, Submission And 'Dark Desires' Do powerful women tend to be failures at love? South American novelist Luisa Valenzuela reflects on this and other mysteries in a sometimes raunchy, but always candid, new memoir.


Book Reviews

Sex, Submission And 'Dark Desires'

Dark Desires and the Others, by Luisa Valenzuela
Dark Desires and the Others
By Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Susan E. Clark
Hardcover, 288 pages
Dalkey Archive Press
List Price: $15.95

Read An Excerpt

Luisa Valenzuela is an important, post-boom South American avant-garde writer. Her books — Como en la guerra (1977) and Cambio de armas (1982) among them — take on patriarchy and politics. They challenge her native country Argentina's dirty past, the corruption and murderous policies of its former dictatorship. She wins awards, meets with critical success and is invited all over the world to teach and speak.

So why is she sitting in New York, unable to think about anything other than boys?

One day Valenzuela was looking through old notebooks and realized they were full of reflections about men. These diaries recorded nothing about art or philosophy or current events. They documented her encounters with men only. What, she wondered on page after page, were they thinking? Why weren't they calling her back? Why did this one stop interesting her just as he wanted to get serious? How pretty were another one's eyes? In Dark Desires and the Others, Valenzuela's new memoir/journal/confession, she works from these notebooks to inquire about a life lived with men, how she used them and they used her, and why they had such a pull on her life.

It's a little self-indulgent, perhaps, and rambling, too. But Dark Desires does rub up against an uncomfortable truth that began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, around the time her notebooks were originally written: Women were suddenly finding success in work and business, but were failing at love. Valenzuela could be a case study in Female Perversions, Louise Kaplan's groundbreaking Freudian study of this phenomenon. Women who felt powerful in their chosen professions were, in their love and sex lives, willfully subjugating themselves to their male partners.

Luisa Valenzuela is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Cambio de armas and Cola de lagartija. Dalkey Archive Press hide caption

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Dalkey Archive Press

Luisa Valenzuela is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including Cambio de armas and Cola de lagartija.

Dalkey Archive Press

Told in fragmentary anecdotes, theoretical asides and excerpts from letters and journal entries, Valenzuela's book is the attempt of one woman to examine, understand and break out of this pattern. She wants to feel she's worthy of her career success, trying "to reach some kind of acceptance, some kind of profound recognition. Not of exterior recognition, the applause that's also implicit in that word," but something internal. In doing so, she might be able to accept that "the male of the species also has his little heart" and stop simply using them for sex, inspiration or a prop for her self-esteem.

If this were a traditional memoir, Valenzuela would ride off into the sunset with one of the men in the book — Dieter, Pale Fire, Duck, Joe. She has no pat answers, just a continuing quest to overcome doubts and bad habits. Dark Desires and the Others is a brave book, a vulgar book and a riveting read. It's the testimony of one woman trying to surrender the fight in the war between the sexes, but who remains unable to lay down her arms.

Excerpt: 'Dark Desires And The Others'

Dark Desires and the Others, by Luisa Valenzuela
Dark Desires and the Others
By Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Susan E. Clark
Hardcover, 288 pages
Dalkey Archive Press
List Price: $15.95

October 2, 1978
On the Eve of the Trip

You'll think that I died, and something like that is indeed happening or has happened. You can't tell anymore what's alive and what's dead, or rather, who's going around these worlds, seemingly dying. Remembering is like being left hanging from something that you don't have anymore — if you ever really had it — one reason to be more or less agglutinate, magnetic. Valid.

Remembering here and now, in my house in Buenos Aires, as if I were at the top of a mountain, and even further, as if I were lying at the bottom of the sea, which is where these things tend to happen. Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Sometimes the memories flow when it gets dark; they appear and they fade, they amaze us at the turn of a page and perhaps we should hurry to retain them. Perhaps we should offer more to memory, that form of madness.
I found a piece of paper. I found a writing pad — and I write and I write and I write. I'll write until the ink runs out and there's nothing left of what I care about to jot down.

Here there is order, calm. I don't want to leave this house anymore. I don't want to be distracted. I prefer to keep seeing objects that I'm fond of, encouraging the winds of inspiration, getting up early and sometimes running through the park to buy something to eat or more ink. Refill the cartridges. Cartridges of ink to write a bit, fire more shots, all made of words. And now — now that the phone isn't working — how I long to stay here shut in between these caressing walls! I feel so good facing myself, facing mountains that look like water, but which are really wool, mountains woven stitch by stitch, only suggested. A small tapestry that will accompany me on my trip, though I no longer want to travel.

I'll go all the same.

The house is beautiful, I like each and every thing, and the cats are playing in the middle of the room and tralala tralala. I keep on in my singsong and can't get away from it. And again my doubts: "To go out or not to go out? To bathe or not to bathe?"

How I need the little securities of life, or should I say, how I'd like to have the larger ones! I would like not to have to take the plane or the boat, not to climb once more into that enormous floating belly, to float in that endless amniotic fluid, the ocean — and go sailing peacefully toward other latitudes, writing my novels. I have to learn how to write during this trip, an errant writer so to speak — a roving writer.

Getting Ready to Jump

Further along the dates will have to be erased, but at the end of '78, the person I was then was getting ready to jump, knowing her absence will be a long one. She's been invited to be Writer in Residence at Columbia University for a semester, and that will be — she intuits already — the longest semester of her life. She breathes in huge gulps of her city's air, the verb a lie at the time, because the air had become unbreathable. With vandal-like delight she is disemboweling her library. Some books will have to disappear — the word alone produces goose bumps — others are simply dismantled in order to preserve this story or that essay or those three chapters that she knows she'll need for her course, or that she wants to keep with her in spite of the weight limit on planes. Get rid of everything to be able to leave as lightly as possible. She knows that if she stays in her own country, she won't write anymore. She can't show her latest work to anyone. She's afraid of putting those readers in danger. She also has notebooks and notebooks — disheveled, awkward diaries with no continuity at all. From those she likewise vandalizes — or, in this case, rescues — some fragments that will later form the microstories of a volume titled precisely Libro que no muerde (Book that Doesn't Bite). And it didn't, really, unless we say that irony has a bite. Those were certainly times that lent themselves to furious biting. She did what she could with regard to the situation; she got involved and she wrote and later she wrote partly about her involvement. These pages however, only took in the shrapnel — shrapnel that was noted down in new and multiple foreign notebooks. So that all that's left is to write the good-bye bite:

Her loved one of the time, ex-loved one now because of his abandoning her when everything seemed to promise the opposite, reappears after almost a year of absence in order to declare his passion and his anguish and to confess his error. The woman I was then has one foot already in the stirrup and treats him with disdain, and when he desperately swears that he will never stop searching for her, and asks, using these exact words, "Now what do I do?" she answers, "Become a man," and turns right around.

So that's where, in New York, and without realizing it, her notes about herself, about her efforts to become a woman, begin.

The Starring/Dying Role

The moment has come to say it, to become consistent. This is who I am and this is my truth, however heavily it weighs on me.

After so much talking through other mouths, creating characters,
In body and fantasies,
In desires
Spectator that I am
(and extraneous)
Protagonist sometimes
Agonist others
Heavy prot/uberance
milking words,
that leakage.

The best way to be the protagonist of the story without being the protagonist is to be the author of the story.

Having recently arrived in New York, an analyst whom I saw sporadically cursed me with the following:

"You don't look for men, you don't look for lovers — you look for characters for your novels."

I stopped seeing the analyst after that session, because I didn't think he could understand me, could understand that, for me, life and literature, love and literature, are the same. Now, though, I worry about it, because I see myself in Spencer Holst's character, the one from his "True Confessions Story." It's true that I only quoted half of the paragraph, the part that fit best. The rest goes like this:

" ... for she picked her men carefully for their literary value, seeking always someone sinister for her unhappy romances, and after each she would simply write what happened, the simple truth in a sorry style."

Okay. I'm not that bad. I'm hardly so unhappy, nor my style so sorry.
I moved to New York in 1979 after having lived the most leaden years of lead in Buenos Aires, acting rashly and then writing about it. I traveled intent upon staying away a long time, having been invited to be Writer in Residence at Columbia University, the alma mater of my maternal grandfather no less. A great honor that only the Dons of Latin American literature had merited ... and yet, what do I write about in my journals during my almost twelve years in New York? Not about my literary successes and other dazzling exploits, no — I write and I write and I write about my confrontations, tribulations, and joys with the male of the featherless biped species to which I belong, and which I am always exploring, simply because I'm a writer and because I have a certain skill with words.

The Male of the Species

The male of the species also has his little heart. It surprises you every time you rediscover this, without really wanting to, and then all at once you start putting two and two together and all the available evidence comes together to demonstrate that, yes sir, the male of the species is also a human being, although he generally tries to hide this fact and very often succeeds.
Not that I hadn't suspected this all along, but it had only been a flash of something, something present but not really well defined enough to make it feel real. Through repeated contact — sometimes rather intimate and highly pleasant forms of contact — I've learned many things, but it's hard to say if what I've seen are true feelings. Tenderness, yes, there's been a lot of tenderness, because at bottom, that's what I choose — but after that? Tenderness can easily turn into something clingy.

The second turn of the screw might turn out to be something even more difficult to confess: the recognition that I am a lovable person, in other words deserving of love from the other. If the male of the species is capable of giving love, the female of the species should be capable of receiving it. It sounds simple, but that's where the trap is; in fact, it's horribly complicated.
I think I write, among so many other motives, to reach some kind of acceptance, some kind of profound recognition. Not of exterior recognition, the applause that's also implicit in that word (a career, if you can call it that, stretched throughout a life) — no. A proprietary, nontransferable recognition: know thyself and all that.

And I say that to write is a fulltime curse, because the long periods of drought hurt more than all the pains of writing put together. Because the pains (and horrors) of writing are usually infected with an exultant joy.

The marches and countermarches, the eternal struggle against the weariness of writing. And that's how, all of a sudden, an idea emerges: try to see the face of the internal enemy, the one rising up against me and who opposes even the simplest desires, especially the desire to write, which should run free of any obstacle, like a beneficent river (sometimes raging, sometimes out of control, bursting its dams, but always a river, always something that flows, even though at times dryness takes hold and it turns into a tenuous trickle incapable of quenching my thirst or of irrigating anything at all, seeping right into the earth). An underground river. And the internal enemy putting her foot onto its point of egress, preventing it from bursting forth.

Let's see, internal enemy, you there, show your face! I'm mature enough now to know you, to deal with and even love you.

That's what it's all about — to feel affection for the internal enemy. If you do — if I'm able to achieve that — these texts will be essentially about the apprenticeship of love. It's a chronicle, in other words, which can at the same time be a step forward in my apprenticeship (and, as always, two steps forward, one step back ... but I don't want to get ahead of myself, admitting to the inevitable backsliding).

Later the other stuff will arrive, the actual practice of love. Later or simultaneously, which would be ideal. Because enough of separations and splits, to want to say I want you to ... like when we used to play tag and the world would stop, or to pretend to stop in order to think and regroup and reestablish order, and then start moving again. Enough of so many cuts and breaks, enough of focusing on pieces of myself. This will be an attempt at integration; the internal and external enemies and the inter-game that connects them.

"Tag, You're It"

I say, "touch me and I'm it," and then I won't play anymore. And I don't say that because of the famous child's game, but purely to express my desire. I want him to touch me, to leave a mark on me, a mark of love, just one little stain, at the very least.

If we have to play as though it's just a joke, without really getting into the real game, at least let its memory stay with us. Touch me, leave your mark on me, that's all I ask of you; and then I won't play, I won't play anymore.

Inter-game. Game. Whatever I do, I can't get rid of the word game so easily. I would like to throw it away as though it were a peel. Peel upon peel upon peel, perhaps, in the best onion style — in other words, establishing my self.
Advice: treat literature with the same disrespectful veneration as fans treat soccer. Play with words.

From Dark Desires and the Others by Luisa Valenzuela, translated by Susan E. Clark. Copyright 2011 by Luisa Valenzuela. Excerpted by permission of Dalkey Archive Press.