What makes a novel erotic? Must it appeal to our lower passions, making our blood boil as it brings seductive themes to the fore of our mind? Or is it, in the classical Platonic sense, something elevating us to a higher realm, consisting of love and divinely oriented desire?
The question cannot be fully resolved unless we first identify the meaning of a vexed term such as ‘the erotic.’
Christine Wood’s book The Stalkers Tale raises these questions in a subtle way, presenting the reader with a dilemma. In fact, the dilemma at the heart of the book is profoundly moral; is a person consumed by lustful desires capable of love? The reader primarily follows the story of the stalked Bianca, who on account of a passionate youthful relationship with the handsome Hesketh is now living a life of fear and anxiety. Hesketh visits his ex-lover’s flat and phones her just to hear her voice. Acting in such a way, both Bianca and Hesketh himself are ensured to be incapable of moving on with their lives. They are trapped in a stasis, where Hesketh lives a life of memory that defines his entire mental life, while Bianca is forced to live her life worried that a former lover will always resurface at the most unexpected an undesired time. Hesketh’s entire life is damaged by his obsession, which affects his ability to be a loving father, instead directing his version of love to a person who will never again receive what he offers.
The novel is not limited to one story-line, which elevates the narrative to a level of heightened suspense and clever complexity. The contemporary scene of Bianca and Hesketh plays out against a backdrop of parallel events from the 30’s and 40’s, set in varying places such as Fitzrovia, Paris and China. The abundance of characters with their richly defined mannerisms brings to mind novels by someone like Iris Murdoch, who manages to convey philosophical meaning by way of her narrative. The book is long and requires patience to stay the course, but the persevering reader will find him or herself enriched by the journey. At the most profound level, the novel reveals the dark side of the erotic, when it is so distorted as to turn out to be completely contrary to any semblance of love.
Lust is a sin against love, as the philosopher Roger Scruton reminds us in works such as A Death Devoted Heart, in which he traces the famed love story of Tristan and Isolde. A similar sentiment is alluded to by Wood, who speaks of the stalker having ‘invested his whole life in a memory of lust.’ She continues by saying the great difference between the stalker and the stalked is that he – the stalker – calls it love, while the stalked woman calls it hatred. Lust is a perversion of love, and as the stalker has misidentified lust for love, he himself has been consumed by his misdirected desires. The stalked Bianca sees the opposite side of the story; for her there is a hatred directed at the suitor who was once her lover. At the heart of the matter is that both have identified the lustful encounter of bygone years as a confusion of desire: what we desire when we desire another is precisely this other, as a free person and as a subject. The stalker views his victim as an object, and an object which he believes he can – or even ought to – possess.
Wood’s novel points us to the reality that the erotic is distinct from the pornographic. Hesketh is devoured by his lustful recollection, perverting the beauty to which love calls us. The erotic is an essential attribute of life, which compels us to a higher order, in which the person we desire is seen as an autonomous individual we seek to unite our fate with. We are held in an existential suspense wherein we reflect on a shared end towards which we aspire. The erotic is one of the key ingredients in this shared journey, while the lustful or pornographic drags us and the desired object down to a sense of mere carnality. Aspiring for love is a beautiful end, and it is one from which Hesketh cuts himself off by obscuring the very thing he desires the most.