The question of all questions.
And one that has troubled many a philosopher, as well. Most recently, Aaron Ben-Zeév, president and professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa and author of In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims wrote a thought-provoking essay on the duality of the imaginary and the real.
“There are two prevailing claims: a) our desire is greater when the object is real and attainable; b) our desire is greater when the object is imaginary and unattainable,” says Ben-Zeév. “Which claim is correct? Do we desire the one we have more than we desire the one we imagine having?”
The answer is simple: we want both.
The real, as he points out, is more intense.
“A very strong event, which may be quite relevant to our well-being, may not provoke excitement if we succeed in considering it as fantasy,” he says. “Thus, despite the horrifying impact of a potential nuclear holocaust, many people do not allow this to upset them, since they do not consider the event to be a real possibility.”
So the real is tangible–right there where you can see it–and possibly attainable. Onto it we project the fantasy elements.
“In contrast to how we feel about what we already have, we are typically excited by anything that is incomplete, unsettled, unexplained, or uncertain,” Ben-Zeév says. “When the situation becomes stable and normal, there is no reason for the mental system to be on the alert and to invest further resources.”
So basically to be desirable, one must exist but be sufficiently unknown to enable others to impose their own ideas on us. Oh, but there one more thing–attainability.
“This factor is one of the features of reality. Something that is attainable is real in the ontological sense–it is not merely a fantasy but is rather something that exists and that could be experienced immediately,” Ben-Zeév adds. “However, something that is attainable needs no attention since it is likely to be perceived as being granted already. On the other hand, incomplete experiences, which are a kind of unfinished business, are more desirable because, among other aspects, they require more effort to be invested in them, which can cause them to be perceived as more worthy. Hence, those who play hard to get often make themselves more desirable.”
But you can’t be too unavailable. Ben-Zeév warns: “When the required effort is too immense and the probability of its success is low, people may give up the idea… At a certain point, an increase in the required effort decreases emotional intensity since people begin to believe that the outcome for which effort is being invested is actually unattainable and hence unreal.”