Regarding longing

Madame Bovary, Sasha Martinez

01 — In one of the more recognizable poems of Mark Strand, a weary couple shares the reading of a single book—a book that transforms and changes the timbre of its provocations in accordance with whose hands cradle it. At one point in the sprawling poem, the husband looks on at his wife reading, and he intones: “You have the impulse to close the book / which describes my resistance: / how when I lean back I imagine / my life without you, imagine moving / into another life, another book.”

02 — Consider the peculiar dangers of provoking desire through the books one reads; how words on a page can remind you of a longing you thought you’d long ago calmed, or tease you into considering the weight of someone else’s gaze, or galvanize you into crossing a once interminable distance to take the wrong person’s hand in yours and confess a wanting. Consider this unflinching definition of desire, brought forward by Siri Hustvedt via the very first line of an essay: “Always a hunger for something, and it always propels us somewhere else, toward the thing that is missing.” (And, here, remind yourself of Anne Carson declaring, “Desire moves. Eros is a verb.”) See yourself armed—first with your library, and then perhaps (of course) with your longings. And then, please, consider yourself in a reality where you moved, arms laden with the books that compelled you.

03 — So celebrated for its stark rendering of readerly downfall: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a record of the misfortunes of a country girl who damned herself through intemperate bookishness, she who petulantly pinned her desires on fiction. No other heroine is as well-known for being inflamed into action by reading—particularly, the reading of tawdry novels, novels about love and lust, novels that inspire wistful gazes out kitchen windows—than Emma Bovary. Dearest Emma—in the tradition of Don Quixote who charged forward to vanquish windmills—who willfully transcends the banalities of married provincial life, an ambition originally sparked by the bookseller’s wares. (Read and want and read and want and read and want, goes our Emma—until that very wanting defines her and a conviction takes root: I am meant for other things.) Emma who “tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words ‘bliss,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘intoxication,’ which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.” Darling Emma, who liked to pick up a book, then, “dreaming between the lines, let it fall on her knees.” Sweetest Emma who read her novels and loved her menfolk and swallowed arsenic. 

04 — How easy it is to nod sagely at Emma’s demise. How easy it is to be artless and condemn Flaubert’s heroine for her flightiness, her betrayals, her selfishness, the greed of her imagined life. For her very daring to rage against dullness. For her desires, for her desiring. Emma’s husband—“mediocre,” Emma calls him, and it is his greatest sin in her eyes—quietly despairs of Emma preferring to “stay in her room all the time and read.” Emma’s mother-in-law, after the younger Madame Bovary collapses into near-catatonic moroseness following a lover’s abandoning, swoops in to forbid the reading of novels. The bookseller, the elder Madame Bovary is of the opinion, is nothing more than a “purveyor of poison.”

05 — Consider the scene in Anaïs Nin’s The Four-Chambered Heart where the heroine’s lover burns all her books, in the attempt to rid [her] of every trace of the man she loved while she read them. (Remind yourself that Nin’s heroine allows him this horror but seethes in the parenthetical, He is only burning words.) (Remember, naturally, Sontag: “My library is an archive of longings.”)

06 — And yet. For the reader who willfully looks—for the reader despairing enough, desperate enough, to plunder countless pages to look for a sentence to describe her, to scribble her wanting in the margins of loaned fictions—narrative is delightfully fraught with temptation, with justification, with vindication. With reason, with sensibility. With the promise of joy. Consider the sly subversion of neatly bound paper; consider Emma Bovary who read to seek “the imagined satisfaction of her own desires.” See how Emma pores over her books over supper, turning the pages as the man she married sits across from her and keeps on talking. And, later, see how Emma—replete and triumphant for having surrendered herself to a man whose name she does not bear—recalls all the heroines of all the books she had read and how “this lyrical throng of adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her.” Remind yourself that when Emma finds as her first lover the young law student Léon, in him she begins to realize the longings her reading has sparked. And that young Léon understands: “She was the beloved of every novel,” he thinks of Emma, “the heroine of every drama, the vague she of every volume of poetry.”

07 — Consider how the husband in Strand’s “The Story of Our Lives” goes on to tell his wife: “The book describes more than it should. / It wants to divide us.” See this as the benediction you were looking for.

08 — Nin also writes of Djuna: “There were other selves which interested her more but which she learned to conceal or to stifle: her inventive fantasy-weaving self who loved tales, her high-tempered self who flared like heat lightning, her stormy self, the lies which were not lies but an improvement on reality.” And: “Secretly she had often dreamed of other selves, the wild, the free, the natural, the capricious, the whimsical, the mischievous ones. But the constant demand upon the good [self] was atrophying the others.” (You read all this already having moved, and you read all this and only much later will you realize that it was only as recognition of an old life. In the interim between the reading and the epiphany, you have assured yourself that you are hard at work; it is a particular alchemy, fusing the myriad of selves into one that can bear its own weight however unsure it is of its footing. And, sometimes, imagine that, it is no work at all.)

09 — You recognize now, too, how very little of the books in your shelves truly appeal. There are too many books that had been acquired—and, in this, certain accusations have merit—to feed a contempt, to provoke a restlessness into being, to encourage a wistfulness. You are propelled now by different provocations. You are not wistful; you are precisely where you want to be. You want, in a pile on the patch of floor next to your bed, books that are solely romances, books about yearning, about need and need only teased and need assuaged, about desire not stemmed and perhaps about a desire only transmuted, about ease, about desperations and fervor, about home. About brightness that begins in the liminal and lingers and persists, and on and on and on. You want to be told about what you are feeling, you want spread before you a record of someone else’s alchemical change and you want the recognition. You want the giddy vindication, you want the triumph of agreement.

10 — Consider how—having now moved, having allowed yourself to be propelled to the thing that was missing, having cleaved one’s self from those who think of prose as poison, having stopped beggaring for satisfaction in mere imagining, having found a beautiful boy who thinks of you as that no-longer-nameless she in every leaf of poetry, having built a home where the words “bliss” and “passion” and “intoxication” do not settle for being just words, having now begun a life that allows you to let a book fall to your knees in the daydreaming because the no-longer-wrong person’s hands is there to cradle both book and knee for you—consider how the books you will hold close next, perhaps in the years and years to come, will no longer compel you to think of other books, other lives. And with this “perhaps”—this “perhaps” is enough for you, intemperate, alchemical, library-laden you—you can consider a long longed-for calming of longing.

December 2014
and then May 2015

18 thoughts on “Regarding longing

  1. A lovely reflective piece, and a surprise (happy) ending. I really like the way that the form of this piece echoes the journey. Great to have you back.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer! Augh, I’ve missed this space, and I’m trying to be back, hahaha If I can’t go back to the blogging thing (although of course I’m still creeping on everyone via my feedly), I’m going to at least fiddle with this blog to see what the hell I can do for it that still feels comfortable.

  2. Beautifully and lovingly written- I never fail to be impressed by the passion and sophistication laced in your words! Great to see you back on your blog- perhaps you’re like me, uncommitted to commitment ;) !

  3. This is a fantastic post!

    The other day I asked a friend of mine, why, after so many misfortunes, he still believed in love. And he said: because I know it exists; if people put it down in books, some must have experienced it in real life.

    It is so simple, yet true: books have superpowers… especially for those of us who use them as alternate worlds, friends, travel companions, uncle’s warning and grandmother’s advice.


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