This is the final column in the second 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: Where do you read?
Once, during a difficult year in my life, I had no choice but to read on trains. At three in the morning, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I would board the train from New York to New Haven. Around five, I would switch to the train from New Haven to New London, a ghost train with dirty windows and frozen seats and wheels that protested all the way up and all the way down the shoreline. Just after sunrise, I would teach one class at Connecticut College, then take the train back to New Haven; teach two classes at Yale, then take the train back to New York; pull into Grand Central after dark, navigate the subway to Brooklyn and arrive home to fall asleep. I did this while pregnant with my older son, while interviewing for jobs and while working freelance as an editor to afford health insurance. I had no office—only my seat on the train, and, on lucky days, the one next to me as well.
So, I am trying to imagine what I might have done if, one evening on the 4, 5, a man—call him Tim from last month’s installment of the Reading Room—had sat across from me, whipped Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove out of his messenger bag and cast about the car for meaningful eye contact. “It wasn’t, in a word, simply that their eyes had met; other conscious organs, faculties, feelers had met as well, and when Kate afterwards imaged to herself the sharp, deep fact she saw it, in the oddest way, as a particular performance,” James writes of Kate Croy and Merton Densher’s momentous encounter. This exquisitely heightened perception, this intensely unspoken communion, this supremely self-conscious performance—this whole setup would have struck me as absurd had it occurred to me, which it wouldn’t have. My faculties and feelers were blunted by many varieties of exhaustion. Plus, my vision coverage had lapsed and, because I was too anxious about money to renew my prescription, I had taken to sneaking my husband’s contact lenses. Novelists like James like the image of lovers with eyes in each other’s eyes, but I found it less conducive to emotional vertigo than to vertiginous migraines. Faces and signs kept wobbling out of focus; I was always waving down strangers only to wave them away in horror. Would Tim have cared about any of this? Or would he simply have wanted to look deep into my unfocused eyes and feel his feelings?
My point is that literary romance—or rather, the ability to imagine reading literature as a rarefied occasion for romance, played out against the backdrop of some fetishized locale—requires a talent for forgetting one’s material position and cares. (One senses that Kate is more aware of this than Merton. Meeting him on the underground, she is affected, but upon emerging into the daylight, she thinks that their relationship might “best be described in the terms of the baker and the housemaid.”) Sarah and Tim both describe literary romance as an adolescent indulgence, though adolescents are not the ones most likely to abuse it. Rather, there exists a figure in contemporary literature culture who stands out as the worst offender; a figure Tim does an exemplary job voicing in his essay (though not without the requisite irony): the longing man—long-searching, long-suffering and long-irritating. In America, he is the soft boy, an aesthete, thoughtful and gently manipulative. In England, he is the sad boy, poetic and lachrymose. He is the beta narcissist in clinical terms. He is the male Madame Bovary in literary ones. But in my mind, he is always the longing man. No matter his age or his nationality, he comes well equipped with all the adolescent’s self-regard and none of the adolescent’s excuses, always ready to be swept upward, away from the worldly concerns of the baker and the housemaid and into the realm of “higher love-making,” as Goethe writes in “The Holy Longing.”
Yearning, indecision, impossibility—the frustrated agency of romance proves endlessly fascinating to the longing man. He believes in soul mates, in beloveds and in the inevitability of cultivating his feelings for them, in cultivating his feelings through them. “Men who belong to the tribe of this myth can find their other half in every tree and every flower,” writes Georg Lukács in “Longing and Form.” “Every encounter in their lives becomes a wedding.” Married, mostly married, incidentally married—what is marriage anyway? It’s all so bewildering to the longing man, who knows that his emotions are uniquely complex and will seize every opportunity to make sure you know it too. Only novels and poems are elevated enough to offer the appropriately aestheticized correlative to his being. Turning to them, he frequently conflates life with literature, people with texts. “‘The women one meets—what are they but books one has already read?’ Merton tells Kate. “‘You’re a whole library of the unknown, the uncut.’ He almost moaned, he ached, from the depths of his content. ‘Upon my word I’ve a subscription!’” It is essential to the longing man that the women he meets remain unread (and that they keep producing the content that he refuses to read). If he were to read them, if he were to know them, he might discover all sorts of realities inconvenient to his desire.
Does the longing man have a precursor? He does, indeed he does. There might have been no longing man at all were it not for Dante, for Petrarch. We could hardly imagine him without Keats and Kafka; without Fanny, Felice and Milena, the women whom these longing men preferred to see not as solid, separable beings, but “through the mist of Plots speeches, counterplots, and counter speeches,” as Keats once confessed to Fanny. German Romanticism gave the longing man his elemental form, his Dem Sehnenden, but Proust perfected him in his narrator’s imaginative possession of Albertine, who, as Anne Carson reminds us, “is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel. On a good 19 percent of these pages she is asleep.” Modernism yoked the character of the longing man to nostalgic and patriarchal ideals of social organization: the American Dream of Jay Gatsby; the Southern Code of Quentin Compson; the English Civilization of Peter Walsh; the Republic of the Spirit of Lawrence Selden. My female students, who have gotten very good at detecting irony (on the part of the author) and bullshit (on the part of the character), see through the longing man’s self-serving fantasies immediately. The longing male reader, not so much.
Today, we find longing men haunting the genre Mark McGurl calls “the beta intellectual romance,” novels generally written by, or about, editors at n+1.1 By contrast to the rich, decisive executives who dominate women in mass-market “alpha billionaire romances,” the longing men featured in beta intellectual romances are sad, confused, precariously employed and too hung up on sex to have it—far better, they believe, to yammer on about the meaning of “love,” the immateriality of “the erotic.” The contemporary longing man has superficially absorbed the basic lessons of feminism. Certainly, he knows how to use the word in a sentence. Yet his vacillations are as disturbing in their own way as the abuses of the alpha billionaires. “Even at peak physical performance they seize the historical privilege of romantic indecision and wield it as a kind of soft power,” McGurl writes of longing men. When it comes to dominating the ladies, they “do not want to whip them, just to waste their time.”
But not every longing man can be Keats or Kafka or even Ben Lerner. The longing men one encounters outside of novels, the ones who, in bygone days, would sidle up at conference bars and now slide into your DMs, cannot be counted on for a fancy prose style. Lacking artfulness, the average longing man’s textual practice is best described as one of clumsy sublimation; of horniness draped in corniness. (“I dive, as it were, into a spacious bath of subclauses and subtleties,” Tim writes, knowing that reading in the bath is the longing man’s favorite pastime.) The longing man will never acknowledge his desire frankly, will turn everything and anything into a cipher, a code insultingly easy to crack. He often appears to be engaged in a long, unrequited emotional affair with the moon. (Sorry, Kamran.)
For me, the longing man’s greatest offense must be his humorlessness. Irony, instead of masking sentimentality, gets swallowed whole by it. Transfixed by the beauty, the mystery of his melancholy, he cannot hear the voice of his inner critic pleading with him to be just a little less self-serious, a little less cringe. Watching his particular performance of inwardness, one feels a strong sense of embarrassment, of pity mingled with incredulity. His intense narcissism is cut by an equally intense commitment to being overwhelmed by the intensity of his feelings. “Thus, I can’t resist the temptation to do exactly the annoying thing that Sarah warned against,” writes Tim in character as longing man, determined to wax rhapsodic despite a woman’s request that he please restrain himself. “I can’t resist”—the longing man’s lament. “Surely she will put up with it”—the longing man’s pacifier.
The question of style brings us back to Henry James. What is with the longing man and Henry James? In “Henry James and Me,” an essay I like very much for its genuinely insightful practice of self-reflection, reformed longing man Simon During reflects on the relationship between Jamesian style and literary desire.2 He suspects that the ornate, indirect language of James’s characters appealed to him when he was a longing teenager because it helped him cultivate a romantic opacity, an absent presence. Part of that opacity entailed the refusal of normative judgments, among them the expectation that one would honestly and explicitly articulate one’s moral responsibilities toward others. James’s fiction provided him with a model for how one might vanquish “the social empire of avowed mutual understanding, and norms that can be openly appealed to” in favor of the tacit, the undisclosed. Without any clear-cut and collectively established rules of attraction, one could develop a sense for another person only “at a remove from constative language—through literary figures.” “This was for me a final seduction,” During concludes: “a world where literature would take central stage.”
Yet for During, the individual impulse to longing has a strong social dimension. In James’s fiction, the desire to see others only through the prism of literary fiction responded to what James understood as “the waning of ‘literary desire’ … a perceived public failure justly to acknowledge the art of fiction to which he had dedicated much of his life.” Though During argues that literary desire has been alive and well since James, he does cautiously lament the waning of scholarly desire—or rather, the desire for scholars and their continued employment. When he first read James, During confesses, he believed the humanities would allow him to approach the “materialization of a heritage that I knew could never be mine.” He longed for real estate, for the English manor houses, the Venetian palazzos. “Innocent as I then was, I was unable to conceive of the cruel irony which haunts professors of literature—the force with which the conditions of academic employment order one’s life away from the styles, tones and possibilities promoted within literary texts (broadly speaking) themselves,” he writes. The longing for “a world where literature would take central stage,” as an affair of un-intimate, unethical selves, gains its intensity from the cruelty of a world that has yanked literature off center stage as a sustainable professional endeavor. Forget about houses and palazzos; now what one yearns for is two empty adjoining seats on a train.
The longing man creates the illusion that the romance of reading can generate a deep, forgetful pleasure, elevating the literary above such worldly concerns as budgets and balance sheets, adjuncts’ pay and health insurance. But behind the pantomime lies the unsexy truth. Like all of us, the longing man is getting mind-blowingly, earth-shatteringly, ingloriously fucked, unerotically asphyxiated by the tightening grip of austerity. Unwilling to face the irony of the widening gap between the possibilities promoted by literary professionalism and the possibilities promoted by literary fiction, he retreats into his fantasies. Yet what he truly longs for is neither sex nor romance. It is autonomy.
“The longing man is a stranger to himself because he is not beautiful, and a stranger to beauty because it is beautiful,” writes Lukacs on the longing man’s hopeless quest for autonomy. “Eros is in the middle: he is truly the son of wealth and poverty.” The best advice one can give a woman faced with a longing man is to read him symptomatically, as a figure suspended somewhere between the wealth of the literary imagination and the poverty of its professional status. Nothing short-circuits the longing man’s desire or his individualism like stripping it of the singularity he insists on imparting it. Critique is a romance killer. (This is a good thing.)
Here it also emerges as an act of generosity. Short-circuiting the longing man’s desire encourages the rewiring of our relationship to him. Now we may begin to entertain a distant and begrudging sympathy for the whole class of longing men. Yes, their narcissism is tedious and embarrassing. Yes, they conscript women into their fantasies with little regard for their personhood. Still, we feel for them. For when your eyes meet theirs across the train car, or maybe, in the not-so-distant future, over Zoom, you realize that their impotence is our impotence writ large. Their passivity is our passivity; their moon our moon. And being a good reader—a reader committed to the value of literature—may require some stolen glances into their territory.
Let me try to imagine, Sliding Doors-style, how I might have reacted to the man in the train car reading The Wings of the Dove. Our eyes meet, his wistful, woeful; mine, irritated. (I once wore my husband’s contacts for so long I developed a corneal abrasion in my right eye and, for two weeks, wore an eye patch improvised from a pirate costume.) I rise to get off at the next stop and, as I do, fix him with my one good eye. “It’s an excellent book,” I say. “You should try reading it.”
Or our eyes meet, and, holding his gaze, I rise from my seat, float over to him, gently pluck The Wings of the Dove from his hand, and hand him another novel—a novel that asks him to think more socially and less romantically; that bends toward comedy rather than tragedy; that makes him long with anger rather than melancholy for a future less depleted than his present. We ride to our shared stop, laughing and chatting about it, and when we disembark, the world outside the station is touched by the “subtle, unromantic magic” Sarah described in her column. There is always a risk, I think, as we go our separate ways, that the longing man will read this novel wrong, too. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Image credit: Still from Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013)