The Desiring Self

I have begun to obsess about this one kiss. A kiss. What the hell difference would a kiss make?

February 13, 2020

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner, as well as, the story...

There has been much grief. Change does not slip around me with ease. I do not go gently. But little by little, I become convinced. I have seen something new—a glimmer of truth in the rent fabric of my universe—and, just as they say, once you see, you cannot unsee. There is no going back, only forward. I recall meeting a Toronto editor for coffee and telling him how I’d blown the whole thing up, blown the lid off, blown it wide open, and him saying, “Well, it looks good on you. You look happy. I’m happy for you.” All true, and in between it looking good on me, in between bouts of that happiness (a thing that was never my goal), much weeping. More weeping in the last three years than I care to recount. An ocean, a melted glacier’s worth. My body has been melting: from eyes, heart, cunt. 

The first thing is critical theory, a schoolgirl crush on Jacques Lacan. And Jacques Derrida. Okay, and also Sigmund Freud. I want to hug Roland Barthes (even if the author is dead) and cradle Michel Foucault (because not everyone is out to get you, sweetness). I have a jealous respect for Julia Kristeva because she dares to write such impossible sentences.

Is this normal—to fall in love with philosophy? I mean really in love? Is it normal to get off on theory? It’s the vulnerability in-between their lines that opens my heart. There is a scene in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” in which he recounts getting lost walking in Venice and finding himself repeatedly in the red light district. Who tells this about themselves? Who dares tell the story of being confronted with himself in this way?

My friend, Sarah, says, “It’s not a scene, Kathryn. It’s not a novel.”

She’s right. It’s Freud’s narrative of the self: of a self who is willing to tear away his own persona to get at something else, something more curious. I adore Freud’s personal anecdotes: the one about the friend who decorates with matchboxes, the one about his grand nephew coping with the anxiety about his mother leaving to work each day by way of mastering a spool of thread—throwing it out (fort) and pulling it back (da)—and how this simple game of fort/da inspires Freud to think harder about the soldiers he was witnessing in his clinic who were suffering shell shock. It’s the most minute observation, and from it Freud recognizes psychoanalysis’s most powerful observation of all: the death drive—our strange drive toward repetition, the inclination we harbor to greet our worst traumas over and over again, and thus also reiterate the possibility of facing that trauma, and so heal.


My new analyst wonders what brought me to his office and I tell him that I am pursuing a PhD, that my research is theoretical, and that I want the therapy to enhance and amplify my reading. I want him to believe that my work in his room is theoretical. That it forms part of my study.

“Oh yeah?” he says. Even now I can hear the incredulity in his answer. He can hear that I am positioning theory as a defense against therapy, because whatever else, I do not like the idea that I need therapy. Isn’t therapy a big crank? My then-husband thinks so. Get busy and your problems will disappear is how he approaches life. This mantra has (badly) served many. “Tell me about your graduate project,” my new analyst says.

Which is when I burst out crying. It is nice that he tells me right then that he had a client once who cried through several months of sessions. It makes me feel more or less intact. I, at least, get words out in between the tears. I get whole thoughts out even while blowing my nose and covering my face. “It’s normal,” he says.

“It’s cliché, you mean?” I answer.

He laughs and I immediately form a crush on him. My mirror, my healer. In psychoanalysis they call love transference. Transference is the first thing that my analyst explains to me. He draws a square. I am in one top corner, and he is in the other, in the bottom corners rest our unconscious selves—all the material that I am messily melting. I watch his lips while he speaks. I know it’s completely gauche to do so and yet I can’t help it. I was taught to look people in the eye. But people’s eyes never do interest me. I like watching people’s lips to see their words coming out. I like the invisible network of meaning with which the lips are asked to grapple. My analyst’s lips are kind.

On the image, he draws lines from me to him and from him to me (“that’s us talking in the therapeutic session”) and then he draws vertical lines from him to his unconscious and from me to mine (“That’s the dialogue between each of us and our repressed selves”). Then he traces lines on the diagonal between our conscious selves and each other’s unconscious selves (“That’s you and me in conversation with each other’s unconscious meanings”). He pauses, then, before drawing lines between our unconscious selves (“And that,” he says, “would be our unconscious dialogue.”). This kind of game is very scary, I think.

And then I think how it is all in pursuit of a kiss, because that is what I have really come to talk to him about, even if I won’t dare mention it for weeks and weeks.

Instead I say, “Fort/da.”

“What about it?”

“Is it always the case that we are destined to repeat?”

“They say so.”

“Is there a way out?”

“Yes, in some cases. It’s a matter of work.”

“The fort/da game is work?”

“Yes. It is.”


The fact is, I am not happy at all, not happy in my mothering, and not happy in my marriage. I am mostly just frozen in time, reading these brilliant ideas and trying and failing to keep them at bay. It is bound, the iceberg that is me, to eventually calf and send crazy ripples in every direction. I have begun to obsess about this one kiss in 2013. I have won a writing residency fellowship and met an artist and, because he laughs at my jokes and I like the attention he gives me, I fall in love (cue your laughter).

I do not know much about the unconscious at the time. I do not have any such skills to think through my feelings and so I am simply left with the dismaying chaos of love and lust and yearning lapping at me in my far-away-from-home residency bedroom. I clutch the symbolic Chanel scarf that a friend who has heard I am going to this well-respected residency has given me. “Marriages crumble in the magic of that place,” she has said. It is silken fabric festooned with a bold gold chain design. I wrap it around my face and masturbate.

Alone and frustrated, I find myself in love with someone not my husband and all I can think of is not that I want to make love with him but rather that I want, very badly, very obsessively, to kiss him. I want my tongue down his throat. Kissing is not exactly chaste but it isn’t the same level of transgression. I can keep a kiss to myself—a secret gem of knowledge, a microscopic lie. I’m not especially proud of this thought trajectory but that nevertheless does not stop me wanting that kiss.

If this was a dream and I was parsing it for meaning, it would be bland: I want to kiss an artist. His art is serious, engaged with world politics, he himself is engaged in the world in a way I wish for myself. I want to make a worldly difference with my work and it is hard to gauge; I feel small where I want to feel large.


A kiss. What the hell difference would a kiss make?

The experiment of how to desire without consuming I most like is the one that puts young children in front of a marshmallow. The child is told that if they wait until the experimenter returns, they will be given a second marshmallow. Developed by Walter Mischel, the project is interested in the development of self-control. But what self-control here means is that they have to wait. Regardless of whether the child endures the seeming torture of this delay (in videos on Youtube children bang their heads, poke themselves and cringe as they wait), in the end the child always consummates his desire. He either gets immediate satisfaction or he gets twice the gratification later.

Yearning only grows with the wait, it seems. Eros builds the more we try to stave it off. In one case, a young, desperate boy, puckers his lips and tenderly kisses his marshmallow. This boy has solved the problem of his desire in this moment by having his cake (kissing it) and eating it, too (well, he eats two of them).

Eros is untameable, ungovernable. The heart wants what it wants. All the things that I fantasize the artist is, I want for myself, and I think I will achieve it by way of a kiss. It’s an extravagant wish fulfillment delusion. My desire hits the node of the exquisite lack in my being (my hungry wound): I want to be made more myself, I want to consume this imagined future, by way of kissing it. If my lips can only graze up against this man and his work, then won’t I be able to more fully taste it? Won’t the kiss give me back something, won’t it inoculate me into a new path of discovery? The part of the story I cannot admit to myself is that if I felt better about myself, my actual physical body, I might obsess about fucking him. Instead, I repress my self-loathing (my aging, dry, fat body—how I internalize myself at that time) by substituting a kiss for sex. Different orifices, sure, but desire always finds its object.

When I dare to ask the artist for what I want, after months of looping thoughts and school-girlish fantasy, I am rebuffed. He does not wish to break up my marriage. He says that he doesn’t want to be “that guy.” It’s true it is a hard time in my marriage. I am seeking a way out—not yet out of the marriage because I’m not quite sure I can bear that (the renegotiation I sense that would be—with myself, my children, with the world)—but rather out of my feelings, of the malaise of self-hatred. I want to be loved even if I don’t think I’m worth the effort. I want a contract by way of a kiss; I want a little slip of knowledge suggesting a more-ness about me.

I remember with sickening clarity the prognosis of a friend of mine on her narcissistic, self-loathing husband: that he thinks he is the piece of shit that the world revolves around. The artist’s rebuff solidifies this awful projection for me. Nothing will change in my life. I am not the sort of person to whom change happens. I don’t reckon in the big scheme of the world in such a way.


Psychoanalysis is, for me, the practice of sinking a bucket into the well of my unconsciousness and watching, dismayed, disrupted, fractured and melancholy, at what the contents of that bucket reflect back at me once I bring it up to the surface. Often it’s ugly, often it’s shocking, but always it feels like something accurate is being revealed to me. It feels as if layers of material that have, over time, accreted to my skin, are being shed and that I can, finally, and with great relief, breath again.

There is a great deal of compost there, gobs of actual shit, and the sort of snakes that relish that. I have let this compost fester for overlong and now, unbeknownst to me, I have come seeking help. The thing about compost, for good or bad, is that it rots whatever is around it, too. It’s why we floss our teeth, it’s why we move the bad apple out of the pile. This longed-for kiss was eating me, which is what fantasy does if you don’t act upon it.


I try to write it out of my system, try to purge it by telling a couple of friends. One of these friends—Abe, a poet—listens to my story and as I finish telling him, I ask him if he thinks it’s possible to have strong feelings like this for a person and be utterly mistaken in thinking that they are returned. He is quiet for a time and then says that he thinks that we, too, have something between us. He doesn’t believe that it’s possible that my feelings are entirely unrequited. He says that desire only reaches that pitch if it’s mutual. I’m grateful to Abe for daring to validate my erratic, disinterested love object. I consider again this idea of my unconscious in discourse with the repressed material of other people, how we speak to each other in uncanny ways, with the strange language of body.


Kissing is so lovely, I’m thinking (all the time!). Kissing makes me feel more myself, makes me feel good in my skin, in my body, makes me feel juicy. In a good kiss, all the nerves vibrate, the cells stand up at attention. The tongue, the lips, the teeth of the other person press into me. My mouth explores the other’s body from this one focused body part. My mouth—the whole apparatus of mouth, teeth, tongue—charts their entire organism in the way that acupuncture tracks neural pathways. This exquisite idea of kissing runs through the body.

Kissing is, they say, the most intimate of sex acts, but it is also more than that. It is the most fine, elegant, grotesque hunger. The mouth is the face of desire in this regard. It is the place from which we consume, the portal to the desiring self. It is the place where words spill from us and merge us to the great other—society—and it is the place that welcomes our food, our elemental needs, and our lust for life. By eating the things we lust after—food and mouths and other body parts in the sex act—we symbolically accrete the objects we want to ourselves. We absorb and have by way of our mouths. Kissing achieves this sense—or at least it does for me—of getting something, of luxuriating inside a wholeness. Adam Phillips writes that “with the mouth’s extraordinary virtuosity, [kissing] involves some of the pleasures of eating in the absence of nourishment.” In this way, we eat each other. Oh, to kiss!

When I kiss and that kiss is reciprocated, I feel what Freud calls the oceanic. I feel awash, unmoored, disconnected from the constraints of my life—I feel languorously, dangerously, wickedly creative. At the time of wanting a kiss and only a kiss, I have not felt this for a great long time. I have not kissed in this way for what seems like years. Marital kisses have become perfunctory, a chore, like the dishes, or taking the garbage out—one kisses in marriage because one is supposed to. Those little hard kisses are killing me. I am furious at them, making him kiss me again. “Do it softer, better,” I say. “What was that hard, cold thing?” But it is no use. I have a recollection, a shimmering memory, of proper, sloppy kissing. But it isn’t something we can manufacture any more. It isn’t something one person can have if the other person doesn’t feel it. Kissing is a feedback loop. It is a circular hunger, an ouroboros—a luscious, horny snake eating its tail.

It is also an infinite untalking. For if nothing else, the kiss requires no words. It is the opposite of social politesse in this single regard. For what you cannot do if you are properly kissing is talk. Your mouth is full. In this way, kissing elides language so particularly and with such insistence that it plunges one into a disturbing and wholehearted bodily disorganisation. Lacan understood this kind of disturbance to reside outside of language. He named it “the real.” In his theory of language, we are plunged into the abyss of the real wherever language fails us—where language reaches its limit, where language is insufficient, or where we discourse outside language’s mundane and hegemonic meaning. We are in the realm of the real where language ruptures into poetry, or where language shatters us into jokes. Or when we neck.

Kissing is surely oppositional to language. Is it not even possible to really speak about a kiss. There is almost no way to describe it without resorting to analogy or without risking obscenity. Well, it is obscene. It must be obscene because it does away with the civility of language, the very thing that constructs our civilized world. It eliminates everything we know, and all that we do not know and cannot know (there are no words for it). That is to say, kissing is nothing. It is the opposite of something. It is nonsense. It is a game—playful and therefore also creative.


But not what I am doing. I am not quite able to follow the thread my fantasy leads me down. It is a puzzle inside of which I am trapped. I am busy in my head, circling around kissing. I imagine kissing, jerk off to these imaginings, and do nothing at all about it. Everywhere I go, this magnificent kiss follows me, but never do I do anything about it except talk to a few friends and try to externalize it by writing about it. The kiss is persistent, though—it wants to be played.


One key detail about the structure of language as it “creates” the world in which we live is that it is not steadfast—language comprises a spectrum of signification (words) from odiously regulatory to poetically freeing. Language can tell us how to drive a car, manage a money market, or put together a bookcase but it can also incant a song or undo itself in an experimental poem. In the former instances, we may benefit from words staying put and meaning what they mean and, in the latter instances, we might find ourselves excited with their ability to scramble our senses, unlock us from stasis. Because language has multiple valences: metaphor, metonymy, for example, it flies off the handle even as it gestures meaning. And in this way we are bound to an apparatus (language) that leaves room for desire—a language that thrusts us into the real. It has a built-in outlet from hegemonic conformity, one that correlates to desire.


For Lacan, desire is connected to the wound of subjectivity—that barred feeling we experience as a result of our entrance into social norms. Desire and lack are bound. We feel this fleetingly—the feeling of something being solved or completed—when we fall in love, when we buy something we badly want. But the fact that desire erupts again and again suggests death drive, a repetition which rotates around our trauma (our subjective lack). Our wound has to do with the way that language structures us into our society, as well as, the particularities of the way by which that wound was incurred. Each of us desires in different ways and these desires therefore have something to tell us about ourselves. We have desires that recur, or love objects that strangely resemble one another, we might find ourselves again and again buying race cars. Desire, as it erupts in objects that beckon us, is always speaking to us about some aspect of ourselves that may benefit from some introspection. Such is the repetition of trauma. The desire to buy a Maserati might be parsed as: I lack drive, I want drive, I want agency, I want freedom.


It’s a kiss I want. It’s a kiss I can’t stop myself from wanting. In 2014, a solid year of wishful thinking has been inadequately repressed and I am asked to participate in a large outdoor reading event at a downtown park. The convener has decided that as part of the event there will be a confessional, and that event-goers will be able to confess to authors. I’m a lapsed Roman Catholic so I don’t know why I agree to participate in this: I should have seen God’s hand coming to slap me awake.

The first person in my confessional is a middle-aged woman. She tells me, at length and in detail, the story of her long extra-marital affair. She wants advice about whether she should tell her husband. She is miserable with shame. I can’t recall what I say to her but I do remember thinking that people must be hurting in the world if they come into a confessional in a park in midtown Toronto and spill that sort of story to a novelist. Confessing to a writer is ludicrous. Forget absolution. Forget penance. Our salvation is the pen and we are as likely as not to just go ahead and steal your most shameful admissions. I absolve her. I want to give her a hug.

The next person who comes in is a woman I have recently “met” through Facebook. She says that she’ll only confess to me if I confess to her. This game seems safe (it is not). I take the opportunity to tell her about the kiss that got away. I have forgotten what she tells me, and after this we become friends and both of us forget—for a long time—the laughs we had in the confessional as I tell this meandering story to her about wanting and failing to procure a simple kiss.


I wonder about elision in storytelling. I ask my analyst if forgetting is always defense, if we always elide the bits of stories that terrify us. I ask because I have failed to tell the woman in the confessional the whole of the story of the kiss. I tell my analyst this story now. I recount that the artist has told me that he has a history of errant kissing. That his own partner has the year before discovered his transgressions and left him. His ex-partner then begins a durational performance art piece that involves almost, but not quite, kissing. The kiss that contains trauma, I suddenly think, is that special? And then I quickly overwrite the question with what I know: that every kiss holds trauma. Insofar as every kiss dramatically covers over language, it must always also aim at the heart of things. It wouldn’t feel so delicious if it didn’t aim there.

But what is the heart of things for me, and why this godforsaken fantasy kiss that will not go away? Did I somehow vibe into the artist’s marital dissolution—else why him and why just a kiss? My analyst suggests synchronicity, says that experiences sometimes display a kind of symmetry or simultaneity. It feels like magic or God’s hand, if one were to believe in either. Freud would say that it is uncanny, this walking back to the red light district of my heart. It is certainly uncanny the way things replicate not just in my life but also in the so-called real world. Is it possible to replicate on a broader scale? That is to say, can a kiss bounce across individuals? Did the artist unload his desire on me? Did my unconscious speak to his? And then time flies. And in 2016, on a walk, the woman from the confessional stops me under a bower of trees along the Lakeshore in Toronto, the same place I have walked with the artist two years prior. She holds me by the arm and says, “I promise never to do this again if you don’t want me to,” and she lands that fucking kiss right on my lips.


I have been fantasizing a kiss, talking about a kiss, and thinking about kissing for three years at this point. I have begun to think that kissing might be dead for me, that the story might have run its course. The short fiction I have written about the kiss is long published, and there is a sense that I have exorcised it by way of writing and talking about it.

And then this innocent, slight, glancing kiss. Hardly a kiss, really, because it is so unexpected, I have not really participated in it. It is strange to be kissed by someone new—a woman. We see the kiss in film all the time—we long for it as a marker of plot, as if a kiss signifies a kind of attainment, or ending. But as a performative, it never really does solidify anything. Instead, it seems to unleash us from contract. The feeling it gives is one of freedom, or pure lust, of desire run rampant, of desire spilling into itself, of a thing that cannot contain itself. Maybe that’s why it ends in two s’s and sounds as if it wants only to run away (with one). This reminds me of word lists from early grade reading primers: miss, kiss, bliss, hiss. There is a sense in each instance of movement, egress, transformation, danger, of something not staying put.

This particular kiss makes the briefest of contacts, and because it is a surprise, and because it meets me just inside a fantasy I have long held, it cleaves my world. A long-held desire is in that moment consummated but I am barely even there, and the fleeting nature of the bestowal never has a chance of stopping. And all I want is more. The rest of our walk I try to make myself talk, make words form.

“I think you should do it again,” I finally dare to say.

And so we kiss, this time both of us. A kiss is so innocent seen from the outside. I am not sure I like it. I love it, I want it, it makes me feel lustful and on the edge of something important, but after so many decades of kissing one person, the change in lip is strange, a repetition with a huge difference. Also, I have not known I would want to kiss her. I did not know or build up an idea of this particular kiss and so, in a way, it is a sort of ur-kiss. An exemplar. A kiss for the sake of a kiss. And so, it is a special sort of almost theoretical desire suggesting more. Whatever that is residing in that kiss, with this woman, I want to get to know. Actually, I need to. It is as if a rope ties itself to me and pulls me toward it. I am generally the sort of person to turn a thing over and over in my mind before acting, but this. This feels vocational. Beyond me. Out of me.

I call my analyst and say, “What should I do?” and he says, “Well, you can work analytically through the questions and subsequent desires arising from this kiss—or you can muck about inside an embodied exploration.” I ask him if he thinks it’s possible to do both. There is a second of quiet contemplation at the other end of the line, and then I hear him laugh. “Yes,” he says. “Of course. You can have both.” He asks me what I would do if I took away the prevailing taboo—of transgressing my marriage vows. The answer is easy. That rope is tugging me hard, jangling my unconscious.


My inability to halt the call to this desire ends with the dissolution of my marriage. Two years of kissing this woman and I am still obsessed. The lip bite, the tongue slide, the nibble, the deep throat, the lip on tooth, the soft touch, a finger slipping in between, a lip that flips the other’s lip—all the nuances of how we kiss wondered at and thought through. Can a kiss feel this good, initiate and sustain such excruciating longing, and simultaneously heal? Is it possible that kissing like this does something good or wholesome to that lack-in-being Lacan spoke about? If the kiss makes it impossible to speak, can something else be amply communicated?

Where talk therapy depends on the accidents that burble up in language, the kiss is another kind of discourse. Humans are the only species that kiss in this way—it makes me wonder if all we want in this sex act is to please, please not talk. Walter William Skeat defines the kiss as a “salute with the lips.” Osculation, the Latin for kiss, means “a little mouth, a pretty mouth” and connects up to a mathematical notion of two curves barely touching at a common point. Etymologically, the kiss has a puritanical limit—a mere peck of lip on lip. But the kiss is more than lips in salutation. When we kiss, we cannot eat, we cannot talk, and we limit breathing, too. If we kiss hard, we will eventually die. In this way, the kiss connects us to the part of ourselves that recalls a time before language, even before eating became our concern. The prettiness of the glancing lips is suggestive more of desire than of getting off, is more in line with an unattainable commodity, an unbreachable distance, of a dare barely taken. This has little to do with the true mechanics of a proper kiss in which the participants are merging—eating one another—disabling their language capacities by using their pretty mouths to untalk. And in the chaotic, undoing incidence of this untalking, we lose ourselves.


In the first dream I ever recounted to my analyst, I visit a Canadian surrealist poet’s cabin. I have no idea if this poet has a cabin in real life, but in my dream he does, and I want to get into it. Every time I try to open the door and look around, his cat attempts to escape, and I know that if I let the cat out, the poet will know I am trespassing on his sanctuary. My analyst says, “The cat is trying to get out,” and I say, “Yes, it’s curious,” and he says, “But you don’t want to let the cat out?” and then I see and hear it, the sonic charge of my dream.

At the time of the dream, there has been no transgression but, already, in my deepest self (the place that only dreams can read), I know there is something I need to keep a lid on, a door closed on, a key locking it down. Now, the kiss, as I begin to explore it, has blown the lid off, for sure. It is this losing myself outside and inside of language that I must have been after all along. I want (still want) the bright, frightening space of losing control, of unlinking from society (from the regulatory aspects of marriage and expectations put on me all through my upbringing), from my ever-busy brain, from the assumptions into which language has woven me. I want the ungovernable eros of kissing to permeate—everything.

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the bestselling author of the novels All The Broken Things, Perfecting, and The Nettle Spinner, as well as, the story collection, Way Up. Her fiction and creative non-fiction work has appeared in Granta, The Walrus, The Lifted Brow, Maclean’s, and Storyville. Kathryn holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. She teaches at Colorado College and supervises MFA students at the University of Guelph.