This is the first column in the third round of Reading Room, a collective column on reading and life. In each round, the contributors respond to a prompt chosen by the group. The current prompt is: Can a work of literature change your mind?
I was in Vermont with my family when I learned that I was a longing man. At first, I was annoyed by Merve’s column, which took my own previous confession of romantic fantasies about reading and used them to illustrate what it presented as a loathsome literary type, one warped by adolescent fantasies and forever hoping to be rescued by some intellectual manic pixie dream girl from the dissatisfaction of academic life under neoliberal austerity. But why exactly was I annoyed? Was it because I felt wrongfully accused? Or was it because she was right—not only about this type of person but about me?
We’d rented an Airbnb to give our kid some outdoor time after being shut in our Brooklyn apartment for the entire spring. I was also teaching a course on the modern novel remotely, hoping the shaky Wi-Fi in our small cottage would be able to handle the Zoom sessions I needed to run and the dozens and dozens of emails I had to write as the new chair of my department. Did I find myself longing for another kind of life, one that didn’t involve endless knee-grinding soccer matches with my kid followed by hours in front of my laptop explaining to panicked professors how the department would support them through another semester of online classes? Did I imagine slipping away to the nearby lake with a volume of Keats to spend the afternoon reading poetry and watching the sun glint off the surface of the water? And if I did, should I feel bad about it?
During that same week, I was teaching Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I was struck by its uncanny relevance to the questions I was asking myself. Here’s the famous opening:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
The characters Merve and I play in our columns fit perfectly into Hurston’s schema: men who yearn and women who adapt to reality. Men are the long-suffering victims of the romantic fantasies they can never shed; women make their hopes fit their actual life circumstances. The tone of each paragraph, one lyrical and picturesque, the other brisk and matter-of-fact, matches the mindset it describes. When I asked my students why Hurston might imagine women and men to be different in this way, they agreed it was because women, especially African-American women during the early twentieth century, didn’t have the luxury to yearn. Not only did they have little time for daydreaming, they also had few plausible prospects to yearn for. This too seems to corroborate Merve’s suggestion that one’s “material position and cares” can interfere with the poetic fantasies that those more privileged may find themselves indulging.
And yet it’s worth noting that Janie, Hurston’s protagonist, consistently refuses the prohibition on longing that others in her life seek to impose upon her. Forced by her grandmother to marry Logan Killicks, a significantly older, charmless man whose small plot of land will grant her a measure of security, Janie revolts. “Ah wants to want him sometimes,” she complains to her grandmother. “Ah don’t want him to do all de wantin’.” Shortly thereafter she leaves Logan for Joe Starks, the relentlessly enterprising self-starter who offers to take her away, because the latter “spoke for far horizon.”
Joe, it turns out, does not make Janie happy. The obvious problem is that his dreams foreclose Janie’s; his ambitions exclude her agency. There is also, however, an incompatibility between how the two desire, or what they long for. Both need a horizon to stretch toward, but Joe is compulsively goal-oriented. Everyone and everything, including Janie, is a means to an end, a tool he can use to amass money, power and status. Janie wants but without tangible ends. The store that her husband owns would be “a pleasant place,” she reflects, “if only she didn’t have to sell things.” What she enjoys are the moments when “people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at.” Wholly uninterested in what uses these conversations might serve or what profits they might yield, Janie appreciates the aesthetic value of the local culture that develops around her husband’s store.
Janie does not share her husband’s insatiable ambition, but this hardly means she does not long. One afternoon, she watches the men around the porch flirt with a young woman passing by. One promises to buy her a passenger train, the second a steamship; the first then vows to clean the Atlantic Ocean; the other says he’ll step off an airplane mid-air just to walk her home. “They know it’s not courtship,” Janie observes. “It’s acting-out courtship and everybody is in the play.” Unlike Joe, these men are not pursuing a goal. Their quips betray desire: for the vehicles they cannot own, for the places these vehicles might take them, for the powers they do not possess, for love finally requited. But since they’re not actually seeking to attain any of these things, they are simply fantasizing, and in doing so demonstrate the peculiar appeal of longing for its own sake. The stories the people tell, according to Hurston, are “crayon enlargements of life.” An expression of the wish that life could be more than it is, they show how yearning for that missing something can serve as it own compensation.
Like the men that Merve describes, the ones in Hurston’s novel can’t seem to do their longing without bothering the women who cross their paths. But one might also wonder whether such fantasies do their greatest disservice to those who harbor them. Is it possible, in other words, that these daydreams defer the political action that could ameliorate the legal and material inequities that stymie the dreams of Janie and her fellow townspeople? When Merve wonders how she might reform her imagined interlocutor, the unwitting victim of a cruel social order, she hopes to replace his romantic thinking with social thinking, his melancholy with anger. That the latter modes are always superior to the former has come to be something of a dogma within contemporary literary scholarship. But it is one to which Hurston does not subscribe. Romantic longing, her novel suggests, need not preclude political action. (There are many hours and days in a lifetime, after all, and while Janie spends some of her time dreaming, her moment of righteous anger does arrive.) More importantly, Hurston treats longing not only as the symptom of social injustices that need to be corrected, but as an intrinsically rewarding experience, an essential component of a full and interesting life, and one that Janie rightly refuses to be denied.
Can romantic longing be abused, and does it often get abused, especially by men? Of course. But the same is true of political conviction, as thirty seconds of browsing Twitter will attest. Moreover, poetic longing, Hurston underscores, is not merely the province of the educated and the elite. Although, as Janie discovers, certain conditions are more optimal than others for its cultivation, you don’t need to read Henry James to have it; many different art forms, popular as well as rarefied, can serve as springboards.
Like many academics, I continuously confront the challenge of teaching students who are nothing like me. I grew up in in a middle-class, mostly white suburb and went to a prestigious liberal arts college before getting my Ph.D. from Princeton. My current university (CUNY) serves an ethnically diverse population of working-class city kids, many of whom are first-generation college students. The stories we tell about our lives do not resemble each other. Nevertheless there is one conversation that invariably seems to bridge our differences, and it’s one reason I always look forward to teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s the one about the cravings we have, like the men Hurston invokes, but also like Janie herself, for some unnameable object or state of being that seems forever beyond our grasp and without which our lives feel incomplete. The tangible things we want may not be the same, but we share a sense that our lives are in some elusive but profound way lacking, and we discuss how we cannot help but try to fill that lack with fantasies.
The problem with the longing man, according to Merve, is that his dreams obscure the inconvenient realities of the person he’s pretending to get to know. But what if it’s not realities that we’re most at risk of failing to recognize? What if our yearnings are dangerous, as Hurston suggests, precisely when they blot out the yearnings of others? (To know Merve, for instance, is to acknowledge her dream of “a future less depleted than [the] present.”) Perhaps our goal shouldn’t be to outgrow our longings—as if that would ever be possible or desirable—but to build relationships where those longings can coexist, not cancel one another out.
At the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God, after Janie survives Joe and another husband, Tea Cake (whom she does truly love), she discovers peace. “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.” Do books change minds? I’m not sure that’s how I would put it. It’s more like they give me new access to thoughts and feelings I’m already fumbling toward. Novels shouldn’t be blamed for making me a longing man, but they probably have enhanced and multiplied the forms of longing I’m capable of experiencing.
What can you do with the horizon? One might think just two things: pointlessly stare at it, or ignore it. But Hurston’s ending reminds us there are myriad other options: there may be as many ways to long as there are metaphors for desire. Novels don’t just call in our souls to see; they call in our souls to see other souls, to share in that communal experience of longing that may be the closest we get to reaching the horizon we restlessly seek.
Art credit: Hughie Lee-Smith, “The Beach” (1962), Smithsonian American Art Museum, bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design