The desire I mean to discuss has several components. It begins with a very powerful wish for a detailed outcome. The wish must be possible of attainment; it cannot be so far beyond the dreamer's means as to be unrealizable. He must believe that there is no happy alternative in life to the realization of the wish: when he casts his mind into the future, any prospect not including his heart's desire must seem bleak, lonely and frightening. The dreamer must be a person of action, in that he acts, perhaps for years on end, to bring about the realization of his desire.
With this definition, I exclude numerous other types of desire. Sexual desire, for example, does not, in its most basic form, encompass a detailed outcome, as a wide variety of sexual objects will suffice. Similarly, an avid but very general desire to be rich, with no particular strategy for arriving at the goal and no action taken to get there, would not qualify. Studs Terkel's hotel bellboy, talking wildly of inventing an antigravity belt and becoming fantasically wealthy, is not the kind of dreamer I mean.
Romantic love, especially of the obsessive kind, fits my description. The dreamer believes that he will only be happy in life if a particular person loves him. On the other hand, my definition excludes the pathological. John Hinckley, who focused all his thoughts on causing Jodie Foster to requite his love, is not the type of dreamer I mean, because there was no objective basis supporting his belief that the realization of his wish was possible.
A strong wish for a detailed result does not fit within my narrow definition if the dreamer is healthy and resilient enough to bounce back quickly if the goal is not reached. Emma's friend and protege Harriet, who is desperately in love with three or four men in the course of a few months, resets her expectations very rapidly whenever one of them turns out to be unavailable. This is not the mad, desperate love, verging on insanity, of a Heathcliff for his Catherine.
The dreamer of whom we are talking must believe that he is a high wire artist working without a net. The desire he feels is backed by despair; the desire is the brightly lit platform at the other end of the wire, with the sequined, smiling girl with her hand out; the despair is the dark gloom below the wire, into which he will fall if he stumbles. In fact, in his emotional chemistry, the desire and the despair are inseparable from one another; they are the same liquid hot and cold.
Finally, the thing desired must be positioned just a little above the dreamer's means, so that it is out of the ordinary and requires some unusual effort to attain. If it is just an ordinary thing, something the dreamer would be well within his rights to think would come to him as a matter of course, we are dealing with a different form of tragedy altogether. Gervaise's dream in Zola's L'Assommoir---family, dinner on the table, and a warm bed--- set a very average baseline. Similarly, the story of a man who wants any kind of a job, but can't find one, would be this kind of tragedy. The desire of which I am talking requires the dreamer to climb a certain distance from the station he occupies when he has the dream.
Here is an example from my own life. In the winter of 1977, in the matter of a few weeks, I conceived a desire to spend a year in Paris. The origins of the wish were mysterious, because I did not speak French, had not enjoyed studying the language in high school, and had no special affinity for French art or culture. The woman I was seeing had an idealized love of France which I somehow caught.
I wrote letters to every American law firm with a Paris office. I said that I was planning to be in Paris the next year, which was true, except that I did not add that it would only become true if one of them offered me a job.
One law firm responded with an offer, and I made plans to take the year off. At this point, my wish to live in Paris did not fit the definition of a desire given above. It was not strong enough---I would not have fallen into a pit of despair if none of the firms responded, and I did not know Paris well enough to conceive a really strong wish anyway. The weak one I had generated had been realized within a month or so of sending the letters.
The woman I was seeing---let's call her Desiree--was a senior in college. She made plans to join me in Paris and to spend a year at the Institut de science politique ("Science Po").
In the summer of 1978, I worked at a New York law firm and saved several thousand dollars to finance the trip. I left for Europe in August and spent six weeks in Greece and Turkey, arriving in Paris to start my job in mid-October.
I worked eighty and one hundred hour weeks while learning the French language at night at the Alliance Francaise. There were milestones: the day I could first read the advertisements on the metro, and the evening I could first carry on a conversation about God, in broken French, with my classmates.
Desiree and I rented a tiny studio apartment, rue Letellier, in the 15th arondissement. We furnished it only with a lamp and a used mattress we bought from a hotel nearby. There was no phone. The rent was eight hundred francs per month, about $200.
I had not asked my parents for any money, and they did not offer any. I had no credit card and no bank account on which to draw; the money I had saved the year before had all been spent by now. We were very poor, as the firm was only paying me two hundred dollars a week, about one-fifth of what I had made at the New York firm the summer before. I was paid every two weeks, and there were several occasions on which the night before payday we were able to eat only after I went through the pockets of all my clothes and found a forgotten ten franc piece. You could feed two people with ten francs by taking the metro to the Latin Quarter (we each purchased a monthly Carte Orange, so that the ten franc piece didn't have to pay for transportation) and each buying "un sandwich avec des frites" from the street-corner window of a restaurant. There would be enough left over so that we could have a beignet or a pate d'amandes for dessert.
Something happened to convert the transient wish into a desire. I felt more desperate in Paris than I ever had thinking about Paris. We were never quite in control of our subject material. We never had enough money. My clothes and shoes became shabby and I didn't have enough to buy new ones. I asked the law firm for a raise when I discovered that the law students they employed for the summer were paid much more than I was. They took three months to give me an answer.
We were the victims of prejudices we had never experienced back home. Two barbershops in our working class neighborhood refused to cut my hair. To this day I do not know if it was because I was American, or Jewish, or because I was young and most of the customers were old. The proprietor of our favorite Vietnamese restaurant asked us not to come back. "I can't make a profit on you (vous n'etes pas rentable). You never order wine or dessert."
Perhaps there was something masochistic in the way I fell in love with this rude life. All I knew was that despite the shocks, I was swimming in the water I wanted to be in the rest of my life. We spent our weekends walking in Paris, or taking the train a short ways to beautiful suburban countrysides. Later we joined a club which took us on cross country ski trips in the Auvergne and, when spring came, hikes in Normandy.
Despite my horrendous accent and uncertain vocabulary, I loved speaking French.(To this day, almost twenty years after the final relinquishment of the original dream, I still feel like a different person in French-- droll, more philosophical, more relaxed.) As soon as I could read, I inhaled everything. That year and the years that followed, right through until today: most of Flaubert and Balzac, all twenty volumes of Zola's Rougon-Macquart, all of Victor Hugo and Stendhal, and Proust's massive novel. Not to mention more minor figures: Louys and Laine, Simenon and Queneau. I tried writing in French. I positioned myself to be a famous expatriate. Not a Hemingway or Fitzgerald, who lived in Paris but wrote American, but a Conrad, the Pole who became an Englishman.
I believed (falsely, as I will show) that Paris was the one place in the world where I would be content simply to live, and where my sense of self would not be too wrapped up in my career. I loved to go into the patisserie in the morning to get my breakfast pain raisin, or to sit in a cafe and order a kir royale.
Our hope and despair were like sky and mud: our feet were mired in despair, our heads held up in hope. Because there was no stability in our lives, there was no middle; we constantly dipped and rose. In the end, Desiree failed to get her certificat from Science Po; and I did not get invited back to work for my firm after graduation.
Desiree had no particular idea what to do with her life. I now knew what I wanted to do with mine: marry Desiree and live in Paris. We were back in Cambridge, Mass. now, living together in a basement apartment. Desiree worked as a waitress at the Holiday Inn; her wealthy parents disapproved of me, and of her lack of direction, and wouldn't give her any money. I interviewed with every other law firm with a Paris office. The most likely firms--the ones actually based in Paris--had no interest in me. Because of immigration difficulties, it was easiest to get a job if you had French blood. Nobody was interested in someone who had worked at another firm and not been asked back.
I broadened my scope and spent most of every interview trying to explain why I had failed to get an offer. If that was not enough to deter people, I told everyone I wanted to do international law. Most firms were looking for "utility players", as one attorney told me. I went on fifty interviews to find one job. There was more heartbreak along the way, as the universe can be specially sadistic to dreamers. The attorney from Baker and McKenzie, one of the premier international firms, said, "You seem to be exactly the kind of person we're looking for." Then came the rejection letter: I didn't even get invited for the follow up meeting in the New York office.
Desiree left me the next spring. We saw each other exclusively, but only a week or two a year, for the next two years; she went to England, then to law school in Virginia.
Half of my dream had now broken off: I wanted to marry Desiree and live in Paris. In a depression of the kind that manifests itself as a complete absence of feeling, I continued trying to run the other half of the program: return to Paris even without Desiree.
I discovered along the way what I have had to relearn several times since: I am not the flavor of the month. I had begun to wonder whether I would even get a job offer. Every year there is one Harvard Law Student whom nobody wants; typically, the law school finds a role for the left-over, in the library or as some kind of assistant. As much as I broadened the scope of the search, things didn't seem to get any better. I had always been interested in the ocean and marine policy and I had a wonderful interview with an attorney from the National Oceans and Atmospheric Agency, who seemed intent on offering me a job in Washington. I visited the agency and one of his colleagues so plainly detested me that he conducted a sham interview: five minutes and I was out of his office. My sponsor was plainly shocked. I received no offer.
It was a tremendous liability in every interview that I had gone to Paris. People asked me if I couldn't hack the pressure of law school, or had I gone to Paris to party. Telling them I had worked 100 hour weeks, learned French and read Zola didn't buy me any tolerance.
I visited the New York office of the firm which had not hired me back to Paris. I should not have gone; this was a set up for a painful failure. The senior French partner--his name meant "The Hare"--addressed me in French. I was so nervous and unhappy that I stumbled badly in answering him. He then gave me a nice little speech (in English) about wanting to have people around him he could count on. A prosperous soul fatuously addressing a soul in hell. Long after, I thought of the trick I should have used: bring a volume of Proust and challenge him to open it to any page. I could have translated any passage for him on the spot.
My luck seemed to change the day I met Ray, representing a small international firm I will call Shandy and Morris. We had a great discussion, none of the hostility and suspicion I had encountered in so many others. I have had this experience many times: one in several hundred people who can change your life---the keeper of some gate you wish to pass through---proves to be a fellow traveller, an intelligent, nonjealous person who meets you with friendship instead of fatuity. Ray, now a federal judge, certainly does not remember me, but I will feel grateful to him the rest of my life.
Unfortunately, as he soon discovered, Shandy and Morris was a mess. By the time I started in New York the following summer, Ray himself was gone. I had taken the job (the only one I was offered) with the hope I could use it as a stepping stone to get to the Paris office.
It was a highly chaotic, political environment where (as a left-over of Ray's) I was not wanted. I had two close encounters with the career I desired. The partner of the Paris office came in to town and was surprised to learn that there was an associate who spoke French and had worked in Paris. He told me that he would be looking to get an additional attorney soon and counseled me to sit tight and work on my French and I would hear from him. He never contacted me; the next thing I heard, months later, was that a woman from the Washington office, who spoke no French, was being transferred.
In Paris, I had made myself an expert in an American law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The Shandy partner who ran the London office was representing the Sudanese government in a loan workout. I began helping him and my reward came when he invited me to Khartoum. I obtained the visa and was running a fever from the inoculations when word came that Shandy's Washington office had vetoed my trip.
Eighteen months after I joined, I was fired. Shandy discharged all three of the associates who started when I did. A year or two later the firm, which never stabilized itself, merged with a larger one, and after that, the managing partner, whom I have not mentioned but who was probably the villain of my story, went to prison for tax evasion.
I had a startled sense of having been thrown unexpectedly from the train. I had begun in the most solid possible position: a Harvard Law student with a guaranteed future, which I had dissipated through the pursuit of a peculiar dream. The desire for Paris had poisoned everything.
My dream had now narrowed down to a point, and the point was a black hole which consumed all matter and gave nothing back. I had been rejected, or fired, or not asked to return, by every one of the firms which could make my dream true. Paris was over as Desiree was over. Only in a pathological fantasy could I now entertain any further hope that I would realize my desire.
I spoke above of a "detailed outcome". Consider this: even when the London partner invited me to Khartoum, I felt a sad sense of disappointment that the most that could come out of it would be a transfer to London. Living in London wasn't good enough, though I could at least get to Paris on the weekends. When I saw the writing on the wall at Shandy, I started looking for another job. I had two good offers, one from a much larger midtown firm, one from a company on Guam.
I went to Paris to think about the offer for Guam, and sent a telegram rejecting it: Guam was not Paris.
I had an experience on that trip which put the lie to my belief that I could just "live" in Paris. Ahead of me at the clerk's booth in the metro, yelling in loud, frustrated English, was an American couple I had seen a few minutes before at American Express. They needed directions and were outraged that the clerk didn't speak English. I thought: I could still live here. I could hover around the Amex office, approaching Americans who need help, and guide them in Paris. I could live on five or six hundred dollars a month. I could find a French girl and marry her, and eventually I could probably work as a lawyer again, because with a French wife I would again be a commodity in demand.
I had acquired some clients of my own at Shandy, and decided to start my own law practice as an alternative to taking either job. So when I look on "the cold snows" at the summit of my dream (Yeats' phrase), I must also see the point at which I turned away. I wanted Paris, but I wanted a linear life even more. Of course, I didn't really get that either.
One discovery you make is that no-one wants to hear you talk about the end of a dream. You don't even want to listen to yourself, endlessly reviewing the small details. A dying but unrelinquished desire becomes an open wound and chases away companionship. When Desiree left me, some of our friends chose her. Two women we knew who stayed with me are still good friends of mine today.
Some dreams die, and others merely are buried alive and are always there. I had one more unsatisfied love after Desiree, and am happily married to someone else today with no regrets. Desiree is a housewife with several children--we stayed in touch for ten years or so after--and I never find myself wishing I had married her after all.
I relinquished the desire to practice international law and developed a speciality in computer law instead. Again, I have no regrets.
By 1985 or so I understood that if I had gone to Paris I wouldn't have stayed the rest of my life. Probably five years. Then I would have come back to New York.
But, because I didn't have the chance, the one part of the dream that wouldn't die was Paris. My wife and I-- she also speaks French--spent our honeymoon there and were very happy. We went on our fifth anniversary and were depressed. The weather was worse, but there was something more. It took some years after, until we were considering going for our tenth anniversary, to put a finger on it: Paris was over for me in another way. It made me so unhappy to visit for a week, as a tourist, that I resolved not to go until I could stay for several months.
So the desire never died but simply took a new form. I must retire with the means to buy an apartment in Paris and spend part of the year there, and I must do it when I am still young enough to enjoy Paris.
But I don't need anything larger or more grandiose than my old apartment on Rue Letellier. Though I never again want to search for a ten franc piece in my pockets in order to be able to eat.
Proust's great novel is about unfulfilled desire, and somewhere in the second volume he says:
"It is rare that a fulfillment exactly matches the desire which called for it."
As usual--and this is why I love French--the phrase is much more beautiful in the original, where the fulfillment is a sort of butterfly, refusing to perch on the desire. And of course, "fulfillment"--really a sort of English business word, "fulfillment of the order"---is "un bonheur", a happiness. So the original in French is:
"Il est rare qu'un bonheur vienne justement se poser sur le desir qui l'avait reclame."
Literally and unidiomatically tranlated:
"It is rare that a happiness comes and perches exactly on the desire which called out for it."
Proust knew that if anyone did. Someone else who seems to have appreciated it was Rodin, who created a statue of a man crushed under the weight of a nymph who is not looking at him. Engraved on the foundation is the first verse of Baudelaire's La Beaute:
Je suis belle, O mortels! comme un reve de pierre,
Et mon sein, ou chacun s'est meurtri tour a tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poete un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matiere.
Which I render into inadequate English as follows:
I am beautiful, oh mortals, like a dream of stone,
And my breast, where everyone is crushed in turn,
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
Eternal and mute as the stone.
The statue is at the Rodin museum in Paris. I do not remember if I noticed it when I went there with Desiree, but my wife and I admired it on our honeymoon.
Since this is more an autobiographical than a clinical essay, I will not spend any time discussing the pathology of a human who cannot relinquish a desire. I am certain there is one. We would all be healthier if we could simply bounce to the next, like Harriet.
Something which Proust knew is that if you cannot attain your desire you can at least....make art. He made his own mountain, and called it "A la recherche du temps perdu." I circle around Paris 1978 the way Proust circled around his memories. A pain raisin, hastily eaten on the way to the metro in the morning, is my madeleine.
If the art is too much a wish fulfillment, it is inferior art. I would not write a novel which ends with young Jonathan Blumen living in Paris with Desiree as his bride. I have written one, called The Bewitched Groom (don't look for it on my website; it is handwritten in six notebooks in my drawer) which ends with Peter Trumbull saying, "If things had worked out the way I wanted, I'd be married and living in Paris."
Art can mirror a failure, as Proust's did: we experience across two or three thousand pages his inability to hold Albertine, and then her death. Or the artist may submerge his failure so completely that the relationship is unclear even to himself. Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment may themselves be the bandage for an unknown wound.
I am not sure what to say about Rodin. He lived a successful public life, and unlike Marcel whose lover died young, one cannot point to a grand disappointment. One must instead look to the life of Camille Claudel, who smashed herself against Rodin and was destroyed. But perhaps he at least understood. He must have known something to create "Je suis belle."
Of course a work of art made to ease the pain may never equal the flesh, or the city, for which it was intended to compensate. This is Yeats' sadness when he says:
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Then there is Philoctetes. I have just read Edmund Wilson's essay, The Wound and the Bow. I never knew the story of Philoctetes: the man with the noxious smelly wound, abandoned by his compatriots on an island. After ten years, they came and got him, in order to win the Trojan war. In addition to the smelly wound, he had something else: a bow that never missed.
The story of Philoctetes may be seen (as Wilson did not) merely as a wish fulfillment. In the end he has his heart's desire, though he no longer thinks he wants it: the men who abandoned him must beg him to save them. The disappointed sufferer becomes indispensable. But what of the alternative Philoctetes, the one who dies alone on the island, never sought?
But Wilson had two other insights. One is the "conception of superior strength as inseparable from disability." Perhaps a capacity for strong desire, bordering on the pathological, is a spandrel of the mind, a by-product of other strengths of imagination and will.
But then Wilson concludes with the only other cure, besides abnegation or art, for a disappointed desire: the compassionate laying on of hands by another human being. Neoptolemus relieves Philoctetes' pain by understanding him and defending him against Odysseus. Philoctetes goes on to win the war at Troy only after Neoptolemus tells him he does not have to, and offers to take him home. Wilson asks:
How then is the gulf to be got over between the ineffective plight of the bowman and his proper use of his bow, between his ignominy and his destined glory?
And he answers his own question:
Only by the intervention of one who is guileless enough and human enough to treat him, not as a monster, nor yet as a mere magical property which is wanted for accomplishing some end, but simply as another man, whose sufferings elicit his sympathy and whose courage and pride he admires.
Proust observed that the loved one is simultaneously the disease and the cure. He did not note that sometimes there is another, not implicated in the collapse of the dream, who wants to help. And who in doing so may be present at the creation of another desire, one which may be satisfied immediately as it is being born.