Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt by Paul Oppenheimer

Madison Books 2001 128 pp. 19.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


From Clinton to Springer: it’s probably unnecessary to name names to suggest that shamelessness is one of the principal qualities of contemporary public life.  But what of its corollary, guilt?  Has guilt, that most private emotion, departed for the Seychelles as well, never to return?

Paul Oppenheimer’s slender Infinite Desire: A Guide to Modern Guilt purports to explore the origin, quality, and possibility for guilt in an age that is not only seemingly beyond religious guilt, but beyond that of Kafka as well.  What Oppenheimer finds is, to him, not pretty.  He notes,

“In the modem Western world, infinite personal desire has replaced God. It possesses many of the same powers as the old and now mostly dead god of Christians, Jews and others – of omnipotence and omniscience, for instance, though it is not quite so good at miracles – plus a vastly and paradoxically greater capacity to inspire guilt.”

Before he reaches this conclusion late in the book, Oppenheimer seeks to first define modern guilt, trace the history of our ideas of guilt, and look at some of the literary figures who rebelled against these ideas.

Guilt, whose core meaning is indebtedness, originated in religion.  “The ancient Jews and Egyptians believed that guilt resulted from broken pacts with God, the gods or one’s ancestors, from human defiance of the supernatural.”  And, it would come as no surprise to the reader or to Woody Allen, the Hebrews have the most extensive understanding of guilt.

“Hebrew has over twenty words for sin, possibly more than any other language. At the very least, this indicates an interest in guilt. Three words are crucial. In Leviticus, the reader is told of het, or innocent sin; of avon, or deliberate sin; and of pesha, or the kind of sin that, whether innocent or deliberate, amounts to rebeIIion against God. . . .  OnIy pesha, however, the sin of rebelliousness against God, may be said to qualify as guilt-producing in the strict sense of the word.”

While it may seem that the Bible was the source of the concept of guilt for both Jews and Christians, Oppenheimer thinks that commentators had much more of an influence, in particular Augustine.

“It is not unfair to say that nearly all of Augustine’s writings, which were composed after his conversion to Christianity, are suffused both with great beauty and fierce, intemperate guilt.”

In the modern world, the principal expositor of guilt is, of course, Freud.  “In proposing the independence of the unconscious from volition, Freud consigned this religious view to the dustbin of psychological curiosities.” 

However, ironically, in its opposition to religious explanations, psychology has not eliminated guilt.  “[Psychological explanations are] simply alternative methods of accounting for a widespread if not universal guilty condition that is often regarded as inherent. As such, they constitute renewed acceptances of it, as though such guilt had taken out a fresh lease on life by assuming a secular instead of a religious or spiritual existence.”

Oppenheimer then examines the “rebels” against guilt--Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Byron, Shelley, Strindberg, and Whitman--before turning to another representative figure, Hamlet, “historically located on the cusp between medieval Augustinian guilt and Reformation reactions to it.”

Ultimately, this deeply conservative book argues in favor of traditional religious notions of guilt for two reasons.  First, unlike “modern” guilt, religiously inspired guilt holds out the possibility of atonement.  Second, as a result of defying God’s requirements, guilt itself paradoxically maintains the connection with the spiritual, which, in Oppenheimer’s view, needs to be renewed and maintained in our morally adrift, spiritually arid times.

The argument is unexceptional and its presentation could have been improved.  Oppenheimer writes clear, if at times dense, scholarly prose, and eschews the usual scholarly trappings of citation and extensive bibliography.  Too often, especially toward the latter part of the book, his learned and obscure references seem not only too frequent, but too frequently irrelevant.  He treats the literary “modern” and the historical “modern” as if they referred to the same time period.   Infinite Desire has the advantages of being learned and brief, and the disadvantages of being strangely organized and inconsistently argued.

When my editor originally assigned me this book, I set it aside, but after a few days I couldn’t deal with the feeling of having let him down.  So, I read it and reviewed it.  I feel much better now, thank you.