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
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
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.