Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flag-staff –
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes away from death –
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.
A reader is on solid ground if he approaches this poem — like many of Larkin’s — from a Freudian perspective. In “Wants,” Larkin is essentially nodding, or more like hanging his head, at the warring impulses of thanatos and eros — what Freud described as, “the opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts.” In Larkin’s case, thanatos always won this internal war: the tragic thread of mortality (and the perverse desire for oblivion) lingered beyond and remained beneath everything in the life of the great English poet. As Adam Phillips writes, “Something inevitably happens to us when we are born, Freud says, which shapes out lives: we desire. From this point of view the stort of our lives is the story of — to borrow one of Freud’s titles — our instincts and their vicissitudes. And yet, Freud asserts in 1920, above all, or rather beneath it all, we desire to die; or rather, to fashion a death… In Freud’s view it is indeed as though life is resistant to itself; oblivion is the subject and the object of desire. For Feud the original life story was a death story, a how-to-die story.”
Although I understand the theory, I don’t happen to agree with Freud’s conception of the human psyche; I don’t think, even subconsciously, I have an impulse for oblivion, and I don’t think Larkin seriously had it either. All accounts suggest that Larkin, although a private man, never actually felt that in the end death would be some great consolation or welcomed comfort. From my understanding, he almost always wished to be alone, but never truly desired oblivion. Personally, I find myself falling more in line with the view espoused by Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, who observes, “The opposite of death is desire.” But perhaps that’s just an illusion too.
The picture was taken in County Kildare, Ireland.