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APRIL 2023

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Desire, Joy, and Sadness in Spinoza’s P18

P18: A desire which arises from joy is stronger,
other things equal, than one which arises from

–Benedict de Spinoza

The poet Jos Charles, in an interview, describes phenomenology, in a parenthetical, as “(insides becoming outsides, outsides becoming insides).” It’s a sensuous definition, one that comes to mind when I consider Benedict de Spinoza’s concern with the body’s relationship to the internal and external fields of existence in his treatise, The Ethics. For him, the body is a threshold of not only what afflicts it, but also what can be cast out from it—anchoring and disillusioning, alike. We might, then, understand Spinoza’s proof, which is also a prompt, as a phenomenological one: to borrow again from Charles, who describes her work as one “where an ‘I’ reaches out and touches things,” we may consider one of Spinoza’s central concerns as not only the consequences of an “I” reaching out to touch things, but also what happens when those things touch you back.

Although P18 begins by stating that “Desire is the very essence of man,” Spinoza doesn’t necessarily stay on the topic of desire itself but instead two of its sources joy and sadness. He makes the claim, “And so the force of a desire which arises from joy must be defined both by human power and the power of the external cause, whereas the force of a desire which arises from sadness must be defined by human power alone. The former, therefore, is stronger than the latter.” To reiterate his point: if joy comes from both internal and external sources, whereas sadness comes only from within, then desire stemming from joy must be more powerful. The power, then, comes from not a dialectic between good and bad, but instead the ability for joyful desire to break down the supposed threshold between things that act upon one, and the one they act upon. He will continue on to consider virtue in this proof, but it may be worthwhile to stay with how desire moves without the introduction of a moralizing term such as “virtue.” What it seems Spinoza has pointed towards is a revelation that desire traverses constructed and material boundaries. We might say that this desire gets its power from being in two places at once.

That said, is joyful desire love? And, is all love a joyful desire? Spinoza does “prove,” so to speak, that this type of desire is more powerful, but the question remains of what a joyful desire connotes. We have been given a sign with no signifier. He says, earlier in The Ethics, that “[an affect] is an idea by which the Mind affirms of its Body a greater or lesser force of existing than before…” If joyful desire is an affect, then I cannot think of a better term for it to signify than love: since isn’t love but that feeling, that thought, that affirms the body of a desired force different than its own? For those who may suggest that I am merely replacing one sign with another, all I can say is that love is an embodied truth—it makes itself material within the individual—it presents differently each time, by each person; it avoids definition while it thrives in that fact of its knowability.

What might be said of The Ethics more generally is that the closer one comes to trying to pindown the way we live and relate not only to ourselves and one another, but also to the things that escape these categories, that are things in and of themselves, we find ourselves further from our initial hope for a stand alone truth, an answer, a single way of approaching what we want to know. What Spinoza doesn’t consider regarding desire, and which I have avoided until now, is this affect’s, all affects’, ability to change. Can a joyful desire become a sad one? He doesn’t write on heartbreak, which can be related to, at times, self-preservation or deception, but can also simply, sometimes most sadly of all, stem from a change in one’s “nature.” It can seem at times that Spinoza struggles to take into consideration the way things alter. On the other hand, perhaps it is the very topic of desire that is meant to, if not tackle this concern, at least touch it. Spinoza’s interest in the plurality of desire—even if just dialectically between joy and sadness—signals desire’s ability not only to change others and ourselves but itself. For Spinoza, desire is an affect of mutability—joyous and devastating, alchemic and slippery.


S. Yarberry

S. Yarberry is a trans poet and writer. Their first book of poems A BOY IN THE CITY is out now from Deep Vellum.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

All Issues