Thursday, December 01, 2005


This is basically what I turned in, tell me if your opinions changed:

Recently, a lot has been brought to my attention concerning my position in relation to other people. Not so much of a hierarchical question, more to the point of my level of chosen contact with others. I’ve been dubbed many things by many different people; hippy, religious, quiet, wise, reclusive, foolish, outdoorsy, and bohemian to name a few. No one has ever called me, nor do I suppose anyone has ever thought of it, social. It’s something that I think has been developed by years of habit, and choices in my lifestyle that are conducive to solitude. Until lately I had really not thought too much of it, and sometimes even enjoyed having the image. There’s something mysterious and stoic about the “alone” guy, he who goes out into this world and battles out life’s troubles by his own resolve. Mysterious and stoic maybe, but probably not right. Through the course of much reading and listening to those wiser than me speak, I began to have some doubts about this style of life. Two elements of my disposition, self-seclusion and suspended desire, came up again and again in everything from poetry to bible study to conversations with friends. One of the most notable pieces that sparked this thinking was Shakespeare’s 12th Night, specifically the relationship between Orsino and Olivia.

In the story, Olivia has just lost her brother to death. Orsino has been pursuing her for some time in the form of messengers carrying his declarations of “love,” which Olivia wants nothing to do with. In his book A Theatre of Envy, Rene Girard presents some plausible explanations for Olivia’s aversion to him. Girard supposes that Olivia is in a situation in which everyone immediately around her admires her greatly. The only variable in this is Toby, who, if he doesn’t admire her, is at least dependent on her like everyone else in her household. This constant adoration has put her in a state of aloofness that she now poo poos another person trying to praise her and gain attention, like Orsino.

I think that view is valid, but I think there’s more at work in Olivia’s self-solitude. Her brother has just died, and according to her she was very close to him and misses him quite a bit. We see this early on from Valentine’s statement that she will “water once a day her chamber round with eye-offending brine – all this to season a brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh and lasting in her sad remembrance.” (I.i. 28-31). Not only will she mourn her brother with tears, but she refuses to let anyone see her face or marry for seven years. She’s experienced something that many of us have, losing someone close to us, and something that Augustine addressed in his Confessions. Having just lost a dear friend, he recalls the shocking face of temporality of this world. “I thought that since death had consumed him, it was suddenly going to engulf all humanity,” he says. He’s realized what happens when you give your love to something ephemeral; you risk losing it at any time. I believe that this was an important motive in Olivia’s motivation for withdrawing herself. Basically, I’ve been hurt by attachment, so none of that intimacy stuff for me thank you very much.

Olivia’s reasons for seclusion have a much more familiar root than Orsino’s. However, his attitude and actions in this story were far closer to home for myself than Olivia’s. Again, Girard has something worth noting on his behavior as well. He comments that Orsino is mostly attracted to Olivia because of her indifference, her stand-offishness. Fine, that’s possible, the “playing hard-to-get” view fits here, but it doesn’t take us anywhere new or interesting in our dissection of desire. Everyone’s heard it before. Girard, however also suggests that Orsino has come across a woman who for the first time has the upper hand in a relationship with him. He also implies that Orsino has probably been pretty popular with the ladies before this incident. Taking that to the next level, it’s reasonable to assume that if he’s currently single, the past relationships haven’t worked out to his liking. He has probably experienced distress of his own from relationships, even if he was the controlling figure in the past. In Olivia, he’s found someone that is almost guaranteed not to fall for him, assuming that she’s serious about the seven years of solitude. Orsino seems to have put himself into this spot of suspended desire, of wanting something forever because it can’t be obtained.

Before I bring this back to my own experiences, I think we need to define what we mean by love and desire. For this I turn to the wisdom of Mr. Clive Staples Lewis’s The Four Loves in which he breaks down our word love into four distinct emotions, and how they manifest and are expressed as a Christian. Affection, the tendency towards liking out of familiarity, is what we feel for our crusty old doorman who’s always been there. Friendship, we feel when we encounter someone else who’s focused on the same things we are and can enjoy similar interests together. Eros, when we are focused on each other, and Charity is the Greek word agape for love, which is specifically the type of love that God shows for us and what we’re supposed to model to others. For our purposes, we’ll be focusing mostly on Eros and Charity.

These ideas and definitions of love and how it should be lived out were what struck me in my own life. The catalyst for all of it was, like many things in life, a girl. Sparing my reader the trite details, I basically found myself in a situation where I didn’t know what to do or how to proceed and needed counsel. What was interesting (only in hindsight) was that every time I thought about my situation, my instinct was not to seek advice or assistance from a friend or teacher, but instead to keep everything to myself and not utter a word of it to anyone. My desire was to figure it out myself, just me and God, no one else needed to hear about it.

So what’s wrong with that? Plenty, as I was being taught through many writers and teachers. One of the first points that caused me to question this attitude came from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. In the 12th chapter he compares the body of believers to a human body, and likewise individuals being the hands, toes, livers, and nails that individually have their own, irreplaceable purpose, but function for the benefit of all. My pastor, in reading through this made the comment that this is a way that God designed us to draw together. The reason we have different gifts is to fulfill needs in other people. In order to receive some benefit or knowledge, we have to seek it from another person, thus bringing us together. It helps to think of it like pieces of a puzzle: there are pieces out there that have a void right where and in the same shape that we have a protrusion. This is a point where I think Orsino would have done better to realize that what he was offering Olivia wasn’t what she lacked.

Lewis continued this denunciation of solitude in his chapter on Charity, by pointing out the flaws of that thinking that were eerily familiar to me. He too commented on Augustine’s sense of sadness from losing something, and admits that it makes good sense to not “put your goods in a leaky vessel.” His statement of “Of all arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as ‘Careful! This might lead you to suffering,’” hit me square in the chest. What came next was even worse. He grants that to love is to be vulnerable and have your heart wrung and possibly shattered. To be sure of keeping it intact, wrap it up in little hobbies and habits, keep all attachments at bay, and lock it up safely. But locked away, he says, it will become an unbreakable, unlovable thing. So now, realizing my tendency towards autonomy, and having these four pieces of literature picking me apart, I needed to examine myself.

First, this idea of self-withdrawal: why do some of us yearn for it? My thought is that there is a longing in us for some kind of peace. I would argue that everyone wants it, but that some people have such a wrong idea about how to bring it about that it appears as though they love chaos and misery. The connection between peace and self-withdrawal is that involvement with others can complicate peace. It’s much simpler to keep your kingdom organized and trouble free when it’s just you roaming about. As soon as other agents enter in, there’s compromise, submission, communication, and all sorts of other things that never existed before. We can apply this thinking to both Olivia and Orsino’s actions, in that they’ve both experienced how loving others can hinder your own efforts in achieving peace. The problem with this is that our very design demands that we interact, to benefit and be benefited.

With regards to suspended desire, I’m speaking of Orsino’s state in the story.

What stood out to me was the fact that I have put myself in these situations of hopeless desire, a want that I probably deep down knew could not be fulfilled. Or even one that I knew I should have but wasn’t ready to take on the responsibility of quite yet. By placing myself in Orsino’s situation, I make it look as though I am in fact pursuing this good thing. But both of us seem to craft situations that deep down we know will fail. It’s a cover up.

Girard puts it quite well with “Since desire dies of its own fulfillment, the road to eternal desire can only lie in the selection of a forever inaccessible object.” I agree on the level that desire doesn’t survive in its original state after fulfillment. Desire is there to motivate us towards what we think will produce happiness. Orsino’s case of desiring desire itself is like falling in love with a sign pointing towards the city instead of what the sign represents. And the results are similar to intentional seclusion, which I think is what suspended desire really is, just wrapped up in a more complicated garment. The other drawback is mentioned in Harold Jenkins’s 1959 essay on the play in which he notes that Orsino is described as being skittish and unfocused in everything save his devotion to love. It’s a case of being swept up in the moment and not experiencing what’s actually happening around you. It’s comparable to someone traveling overseas for the first time, and being so enamored with the “idea” of traveling and Rome, that they completely miss out on what’s in front of them. This, I think points to the folly of desiring desire; while it is a good thing, lingering on it causes us to miss what’s really important, in Orsino’s case an actual relationship.

Some other study of my own yielded some interesting history of this idea of suspended desire. Up until the middle of the fourth century there was a practice in the early church in which man and woman were “spiritually married,” lived in the same house and shared a bed, but abstained from sexually relations. The women who were involved with this were known as subintroductae. Paul actually speaks to this in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, telling men that if they are unable to restrain themselves, there’s no sin in marrying. What I noticed more than anything was this need to put ourselves in near impossible situations, against all odds. It’s not a new idea apparently.

In the scope of human experience, few things seem to be as meaningful as our relationships with other people. Ever since we’ve been able to create, our artistic expression has been almost exclusively relating to how we interact with others. One reason for this is our innate interest in each other. Stories without personal conflict, paintings of rocks, and songs about metaphysics just don’t press our buttons the way a love story or tragedy can. What’s more important is that art that deals with relationships can speak to us directly with regard to our own interactions with others. It’s much more difficult to pluck something relevant to your dealings with another person from a nature documentary than it is from Macbeth. The overarching feeling I had over the last three weeks was the idea that so many people from different walks of life and times were commenting on something that is pertinent to me here and now. The fact that I wasn’t originally looking for an answer to anything in particular and that these writers stirred up the realization of fault in me was extremely powerful.


Lincoln Davis said...

Absolutely fabulous post, Matt.

I was in complete concurrence with your first paragraph, as told from my own experience. As you can gather from my own posts, I've been thinking the same things lately. It's good to have someone else on the same track.

Obviously, since it's a draft, it needs editorial tweaking, but the substance is all there, and it is powerful substance. This exactly the epic Gaitherian post I was waiting for; thanks for doing it.

Were you hoping for more specific criticisms? I could manage if you wished.

Ibid said...

It's almost weird to read this, since I (like Davis, like the rest of humanity?) have been thinking about this, a lot, as well. And it's true, this is the most I've ever heard you say about anything (strange how assignments force one to talk) although I am still unsure what the full force of your argument is...

How are you going to resolve the fact that Orsino and Olivia didn't actually get together? (you hint at the impossiblity in the last sentences, but impossiblity never stopped fictional characters) They fall in love with twins, but not each other, thereby linking themselves as brother and sister.

This had never occurred to me before, but that sucks.

JZ said...


You keep coming to my mind. Each time I tell myself I should write you, but I don't have a great deal to say. Today you came to mind three times, once this morning, another time this afternoon, and finally when Davis directed me to your Blog. I decided that I could no longer bear the weight-of-wonder with respect to Matt Gaither. So, I read your post, and was compelled to say hello. As you know, I was in a similarly impossible situation - I loved someone who was in another relationship. It was the result of struggling to snuff out my desire for a soul that would have likely returned my affection; I actually prayed to forget the other and to love Noelle. This was a "fatal" mistake - I began loving someone I could not have. But maybe that made things easier. I had not thought of it before, but I may have done this to pacify the desire to have "someone" to love without it actually being dangerous. This is a strange thing, sometimes there is reprieve in simply having an object of desire, while being crippled from action by the impossibly of attaining it. Like any good fictional character, I ended up with the object of my love and affection.

mg said...

Davis, anything more pointed that you noticed would be helpful, thanks for the kind words.

Katie, I'm not worried about explaining anything else in 12th Night because this paper is definitely heavy on the reader-response criticism and what stirred a reaction in me was the original relationship between O and O.

Jay, good to hear from you, I just responded to Noelle's invitation to your New Year's bash. I'd love to make it, and hear more about your experience with this. You've always been my favorite fictional character.

Respect My Authorita said...

matt, i saw you crossing the street today with a huge beard. It was rad.

Noelle said...

So, Matt, I've never made a comment on a blog before (I guess its my desire for autonomy-its vulnerable to know that anyone can access what is meant for a few people:) On a side note, I just tried to make this same post but it didn't work for some reason, but I WILL NOT LET THE BLOG CONQUER ME - I am writing again and this time I'll copy in case it doesn't work again, as Jason says, it may be an operator error.
Anyway, Davis and Jay recommended Mo Shakes and I really enjoyed it.
I agreed with your conclusion and most of the means by which you arrived there, except one. Being mysterious and stoic and having a lack of social lifestyle is not the only formula for cover-up or even necessarily the most likely. If anything, it is an obvious cover-up for something.
I have the same tendencies as you, of not wanting to be intimate because it might mean you will get hurt, of desiring autonomy, of wanting to figure it out myself with God but I'm bubbly and outgoing and in the many social circumstances that I find myself, people feel that they've read me like a book but I know they have not and I like the mysteriousness of being unmysterious.
And like you say, self-withdrawal may be that longing for peace and not to ruffle your or someone else's feathers. Maybe that's why Jesus said he didn't come to bring peace(I could definitely be wrong and am up for correction.) He came to be in our lives and interact, and sometimes loving us wasn't comfortable for Jesus or the recepient of His love.
Almost everyone has a mask, we've all been hurt by someone, so sometimes I wonder how people are willing and can open up without God's love. So, I've digressed some, but the main clarification is that hiding and loving just until it doesn't hurt are displayed in all forms.

shell said...

Interesting post. Can't say I've read "12th Night", but Shakespeare’s characters are always so in-depth. He must have been a great observer of people...went beyond sitting in the century equivalent of an airport and people watching. ;)
So you identify with both characters...interesting. It is fascinating writing and reading papers that involve character analysis and self evaluation. I used to be an English Lit major--fun stuff. I suppose my comments on the paper would be out of context since I really don't know you or the university you attend...but I had one question who is your audience? Someone who's read the play several times? Do you have excerpts from the play to support your analysis and such? You probably do, just curious.

I hope you don't mind me posting on your site. The post above by Noelle made me rethink posting on other people's sites--I never realized that people might post on blogs with the focus that only a few friends would access it. Sorry if I'm intruding..:Ol

mg said...

Shell, i don't mind at all, everyone's welcome. My prof wanted us to answer the question 'why is literature important, or why does it matter to you,' and this was something on my mind before during and after the paper. since i've already received the coveted "this is a really good paper matt," from my favorite teacher, i'm going to leave it alone as far as adding actual scenes from 12th night.

Lincoln Davis said...


I read your post again, after the revisions, and liked it even more. Not only did I enjoy it, but it did me further good. Thanks.

I do, however, retain some of my earlier structural objections, and would have words with you about assorted misplaced commas and clauses that could be better arranged. But this is the stuff of grammar Nazis, and overall, your work is a great benefit to all who would read it.

mg said...

I love commas.

JBall said...


I had no idea you were such a writter. Write on! And may much grooviness be imparted to your soul.