Mary Oliver’s Humble Prayer

mary oliverWhat is prayer?  For most of us, the word evokes a dutiful disciple in church.  Hands folded, head bowed in reverent silence, the praying man asks for guidance as glorious light streams through stained glass and illuminates the pews.  The daybreak strikes him as a benediction, cleansing his spirit of yesterday’s sorrows so today can begin anew.  Through prayer, he makes contact with a an endlessly wise, boundlessly benevolent source.  And when he opens his eyes, he and his world appear reborn.

Men have been praying for millennia.  Some pray for forgiveness; others pray for help.  Some pray to express awe and wonderment; others to simply give thanks for the bountiful blessings bestowed upon us.  Some pray to sanctify a part of their ordinary day-to-day routine— as Christians say grace before every meal or Muslims pray five times a day— while others reserve prayer for the out-of-the-ordinary.  A panicked middle of the night phone call from the E.R.  A devastating natural disaster.  A terminal diagnosis.  Even the most skeptical atheists among us have found ourselves humbled by calamity and crisiskneeling on the ground and begging a god we didn’t quite believe in for mercy and guidance.  

For Mary Oliver, large-hearted lover of books and devout disciple in the denomination of paying attention, prayer is a way not to manifest her own yearnings but to align herself with her highest principles and values.  In recent years, Oprah’s endorsement of New Age notions of manifestation like the “secret” has popularized the idea of prayer as a magical means of wish-fulfillment: rub the magic lamp and unleash an all-powerful being whose one purpose is to make manifest your every desire.  Prayer has become a transaction, the Universe, our endless mail order catalog— all we have to do is step up to the register and submit our order.  More often than not, our nightly prayers are a demanding list of “I want’s” rather than an appreciative inventory of wonder-struck “thank you’s.” 

But for Oliver, prayer is not where we commune with a higher being to get something it’s where we commune with our higher selves.  In her form of prayer, she asks one thing: how can I best contribute my own small portion of beauty to my broken world?  At the heart of her prayers is not “what’s in it for me?” but “how can I serve?”  Enchanted by the grandeur of the natural world, she worships in the temple of Provincetown, breathing in the intoxicating smell of violets and standing in awe at how the pristine landscape eternally renews itself:

Now in the spring I kneel, I put my face into the packets of violets, the dampness, the freshness, the sense of ever-ness.  Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” 

And in a moment of delightful humility, she utters a prayer we should all adopt as a personal mantra:

“May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.” 

In this endearing excerpt from her altogether lovely essay collection Upstream, Oliver reminds us sacredness isn’t confined to church.  The most ordinary act— a summer stroll through a dew-drenched morning, a New England sunrise— can become an occasion for contemplation and prayer.  Oliver argues we pray any time we act with intention and whole-hearted presence, any time we make a deliberate effort to reconnect with our best selves.  Perhaps the world would be better, she suggests, if we prayed not for things but for the ability to embody our highest values.

Mary Oliver on Love, Work & the Power of Books to Save Lives

mary oliver

For British philosopher Alain De Botton, “Books are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters.  They are the perfect cure for loneliness.  They can be our very closest friends.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson shared the belief that books could console and offer companionship.  For him, a library was “a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world” who could miraculously make “the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us.”  Whereas for esteemed literary critic Matthew Arnold, a well-stocked library was an invaluable collection of “the best that’s been thought and said.”

For Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver— our era’s luminous, large-hearted champion of silence, solitude, and devoted attention— books are a way to disappear into the life of someone else.  In her spirit-consoling essay collection Upstream, Oliver recalls that in her lonely childhood, she found solace in two parallel worlds: nature and books.  In nature, she uncovered a gateway to God, an entry to the sublime and sacred; in books, the profound relief that comes from sloughing off the skin of the self. 

Because a novel is a map tracing the topography of another person’s consciousness, reading is a masterclass in being someone else, a kind of magic portal to another realm.  Between the wrinkled pages of a book, we can be suburban housewives, glamorous debutantes, poor 19th century factory girls.  Though these characters lead vastly different lives from our own, immersed in their stories— their loves, their longings, their plights, their predicaments, their nightmares, their hells— we realize, in the lovely words of Ms. Oliver, there’s an “unbreakable cord” that unites us all; in other words, we find a powerful remedy to “it’s just me” syndrome.  By reminding us of our common humanity, books not only alleviate our loneliness— they widen our circle of empathy and enlarge our hearts:

“The second world— the world of literature— offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it.  I relaxed in it.  I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything— other people, trees, clouds.  And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness— the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books— can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.” 

In the same way a crush often begins with slight intrigue but ends in infatuation, Oliver’s interest in books began as a passing preoccupation but became an all-absorbing obsession.  For her, reading wasn’t a mere past time— it was a matter of life or death.  In the storm-tossed sea of her dysfunctional childhood, books were an indispensable life raft:

“I learned to build bookshelves and brought books to my room, gathering them around me thickly.  I read by day and into the night.  I thought about perfectibility, and deism, and adjectives, and clouds, and the foxes.  I locked my door, from the inside, and leaped from the roof and went to the woods, by day or darkness.

[…]

I read my books with diligence, and mounting skill, and gathering certainty.  I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life.  I wrote that way too.” 

Why does Oliver love language?  Much like Rebecca Solnit, a staunch advocate of calling things by their true names in our post-truth world, Oliver loves language because it’s an empowering way to make life mean.  To compose a graceful sentence where— as T.S. Eliot once said— “every word is at home,” to be able to sort airy abstractions into solid semantic compartments of comprehensible meaning is a power unparalleled.  In his compelling argument against cliche, endlessly erudite Alain De Botton wrote that how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.  Indeed, when we possess the words to more fully name things, we can more fully participate in our experience:  

“I did not think of language as the means to self-description.  I thought of it as the door— a thousand opening doors!— past myself.  I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

In his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi claimed work is essential to happiness.  Though as a culture we view work as the antithesis of play, work— when it’s a calling, a vocation— can be a labor of love.  Because Oliver loved writing and wasn’t simply writing to attain some result, her long hours at the typewriter were bliss rather than an interminable hell.  And because she took such delight in composing beautiful arrangements of words, she was able to commit the endless years needed to become a master:

“I saw what skill was needed, and persistence— how one must bend one’s spine, like a hoop, over the page— the long labor.  I saw the difference between doing nothing, or doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort.  Reading, then writing, then desiring to write well, shaped in me that most joyful of circumstances — a passion for work.”  

In a lovely line, Oliver outlines the life-affirming commandments of her own personal credo:

You must not ever stop being whimsical.  

And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.”

What makes a life worthwhile?  Poets and philosophers have pondered this existential puzzle for millennia.  But for Oliver, the answer is simple: love and work.

I don’t mean it’s easy or assured; there are the stubborn stumps of shame, grief that remains unsolvable after all the years, a bag of stones that goes with one wherever one goes and however the hour may call for dancing and for light feet.  But there is, also, the summoning world, the admirable energies of the world, better than anger, better than bitterness and, because more interesting, more alleviating.  And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe — that is to say, having chosen to claim my life, I have made for myself, out of work and love, a handsome life.”  

Mary Oliver on Attention, the Artist’s Many Selves & the Mysterious Love Affair of the Creative Life

mary beach

In a wonderful moment of serendipity, I chanced upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver the other day at my local library (how I’ve never read her, I do not know).  Intrigued after reading a few poems, I checked out both Devotions, a colossal volume spanning her prestigious sixty year career, and Upstream, a collection of essays.  Both her poetry and prose radiate with an exuberant love of life.  What I love most about Oliver is her ability to find holiness in the humdrum, sacredness in the profane: she worships the little things— the New England woods at dawn, a rose, a spider.  But though her work preoccupies itself with the small moments, it interrogates larger themes of love, the search for the sublime, and nature.  

In Upstream, she writes about two major themes: nature and the writing life.  In one of the collection’s best essays “Of Power and Time,” Oliver contemplates the importance of uninterrupted solitude to the creative life.  She writes: 

It is a silver morning like any other.  I am at my desk.  Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door.  I am deep in the machinery of my wits.  Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door.  And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.  Creative work needs solitude.  It needs concentration, without interruptions.  It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once.  Privacy, then.  A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Nearly one hundred years after the publication of Virginia Woolf’s landmark essay, Oliver asserts writers still need rooms of their own.  Ideally, a writer’s desk is a sacred space, a sort of sanctuary from the pandemonium of the world.  But though writers crave nothing more than a string of unbroken hours, we’re often interrupted: by a nagging mother, by a ring at the door bell, by yet another phone call.  In our hyper-connected era, each of us is distracted by a never-ending dinging demon: our cell phones.  Though the ease of texting and email makes it more convenient to stay in touch, these technologies have had the unfortunate effect of scattering our attention and limiting our capacity to sustain deep thought.  In many ways, our rooms are no longer our own: we don’t completely shut the door and safeguard the silence and solitude so essential to creative work— we leave our entryways unlocked so the petty demands of the world can incessantly intrude.

Even more distracting than the exterior world is the interior.  “What am I going to wear today?”  “I need to pick up the laundry!”  “Oh crap, I forgot to buy toilet paper!”  From the time we rise from bed to the time our heads hit the pillow twelve hours later, our minds restlessly swing from one branch of thought to another.  Fearful and fretful, we exist in a living-dead purgatory torturously suspended between past and future.  But to be artists, we have to be attentive to make out inspiration’s barely audible whisper:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation.  And what does it have to say?  That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence.  You react, of course.  Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

In a wise moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Oliver recognizes she’s still the child she once was:

I am, myself, three selves at least.  To begin with, there is the child I was.  Certainly I am not that child anymore!  Yet, distantly, or sometimes not so distantly, I can hear that child’s voice—I can feel its hope, or its distress.  It has not vanished.  Powerful, egotistical, insinuating—its presence rises, in memory, or from the steamy river of dreams.  It is not gone, not by a long shot.  It is with me in the present hour.  It will be with me in the grave.” 

According to Oliver, we not only possess a “child self” but an “attentive, social self” who is concerned with life’s practical day-to-day matters:

 And there is the attentive, social self.  This is the smiler and the doorkeeper.  This is the portion that winds the clock, that steers through the dailiness of life, that keeps in mind appointments that must be made, and then met.  It is fettered to a thousand notions of obligation.  It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.  What this self hears night and day, what it loves beyond all other songs, is the endless springing forward of the clock, those measures strict and vivacious, and full of certainty.  

The clock!  That twelve-figured moon skull, that white spider belly!  How serenely the hands move with their filigree pointers, and how steadily!  Twelve hours, and twelve hours, and begin again!  Eat, speak, sleep, cross a street, wash a dish!  The clock is still ticking.  All its vistas are just so broad—are regular.  (Notice that word.)  Every day, twelve little bins in which to order disorderly life, and even more disorderly thought.  The town’s clock cries out, and the face on every wrist hums or shines; the world keeps pace with itself.  Another day is passing, a regular and ordinary day.  (Notice that word also.)”

Throughout history, it’s been thought that artists contain many selves.  In her much beloved Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande maintained there were two dimensions of the writer’s personality: the prosaic and artist self.  Whereas the prosaic self was rational, discriminating, and preoccupied with the mundane and ordinary, the artist self was irrational, intuitive and free-associating.  For Brande, both the critical and creative spheres were essential to the writer’s psyche. 

Much like Brande, Oliver imagines the writer is split into an “attentive social self” and a “third self.”  While the attentive social self is a joyless, sensible adult obsessed with time and shackled by responsibility, the third self is dreamy, romantic, not governed by the inhuman tick tock of the clock but enamored of eternity.  This exalted part of the writer’s self prefers the transcendent to the worldly, the extraordinary to the ordinary: 

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward.  Which is something altogether different from the ordinary.  Such work does not refute the ordinary.  It is, simply, something else.  Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.  Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither child, nor a servant of the hours.  It is a third self, occasional in some ways, tyrant in others.  This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of live with time.  It has a hunger for eternity. 

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit.  Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life.  Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown.  In truth, the work itself is the adventure.  And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration.  The extraordinary is what art is about.”

In a spirit-nourishing conversation with Krista Tippet on “On Being,” Oliver depicts writing as a love affair: to write, we must court the muse.  Only when we demonstrate our devotion and show up at the page day after day, doubt after doubt, dispiriting hour after dispiriting hour, will the elusive muse also commit to the relationship and learn to trust us. 

But no matter how determined or diligent, we can never will the muse to appear.  To some degree, the creative process will always be outside our control: the solution to a problem often materializes seemingly out of thin air.  Indeed, it is when we stop trying that ideas reveal themselves: when we leave our desks, when we wander the streets, when we turn the keys in our ignition and drive nowhere in particular.  To be an artist, then, we must relinquish our desire for control, embrace uncertainty and have faith that the maddening, mercurial muse will show up: 

Neither is it possible to control, or regulate, the machinery of creativity.  One must work with the creative powers— for not to work with is to work against; in art as in spiritual life there is no neutral place.  Especially at the beginning, there is a need of discipline as well as solitude and concentration.  A writing schedule is a good suggestion to make to young writers, for example.  Also, it is enough to tell them.  Would one tell them so soon the whole truth, that one must be ready at all hours, and always, that the ideas in their shimmering forms, in spite of all conscious discipline, will come when they will, and on the swift upheaval of their wings— disorderly; reckless; as unmanageable, sometimes, as passion?

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not.  Still, there are indications.  Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen.  It likes the out-of-doors.  It likes the concentrating mind.  It likes solitude.  It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker.  It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place.  Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” 

Later Oliver asserts an artist’s commitment is to the timeless, not the timely:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity.  A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost.  He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home.  Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist.  Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only.  Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.” 

Oliver concludes by returning to the image of her at her desk on a cold, gray morning.  Like all artists, she’s “absentminded, reckless” but this— she attests— is “as it should be.”  With an intoxicatingly independent spirit and defiant distaste for social responsibility, Oliver reaffirms an artist’s obligation is to the work, not the mundane and ordinary:

The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard.  The poem gets written.  I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame.  Neither do I have guilt.  My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot.  My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive.  If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.  Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”  

Rebecca Solnit on the Power of Walking to Replenish the Soul & Reinvigorate the Mind

wanderlustIs there any occupation as prosaic as walking?  We walk from our bed to the kitchen to make our morning coffee, out the front door to go to work, to the corner store to grab groceries.  Sometimes we stride along the beach joined hand-in-hand with our partner, the coastline melting into a pink-orange sunset; other times, we amble through our local park going nowhere in particular; still other times, we trek through groves of redwoods and Douglas fir to witness breathtaking panoramic views from the top of a bluff.  Ever since we evolved from the quadruped crawling of our toddler years, we’ve been putting one foot in front of the other.  But though walking serves the practical function of getting us from one point to another, it also possesses a profounder power to reinvigorate the mind and replenish the soul.  Thinkers throughout time have been avid walkers, from William Wordsworth (“The act of walking is indivisible from the act of making poetry: one begets the other,” he argued) to Henry David Thoreau (“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” he wrote in a journal entry dated August 19, 1851).  Something about the mechanical motion of lifting one foot and extending it front of the other makes it easier to hear the divine whisperings of inspiration.  After all, how many artists have met the muse on a meandering walk?  Beethoven took long, leisurely strolls with a pen and sheet music handy (excursions his biographer Anton Schindler believed “resembled the swarming of the bee to gather honey”) whereas Mozart noted that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  Throughout time, it seems, quiet country roads have been the site of revelation and epiphany.

A writer who can find holiness and exquisite beauty in the most overlooked, ordinary activities, Rebecca Solnit explores the creative, intellectual and spiritual benefits of walking in her 2000 masterpiece Wanderlust.  She begins by describing the mechanics of marching:  

“Where does it start?  Muscles tense.  One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky.  The other a pendulum, swinging from behind.  Heel touches down.  The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot.  The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again.  The legs reverse position.  It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking.  The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”

Though in our practicality-preoccupied world, we measure a thing’s worth by its ability to perform a certain function (a coffee mug is only valuable, for instance, if it successfully fulfills its purpose of holding our bold black coffee— not if it delights us aesthetically), walking is valuable for reasons other than the purely practical.  While walking is useful in that it permits us to travel from point a to point b, it can take on more poetic, philosophical connotations if we sanctify our midnight strolls and saunter mindfully:

“Most of the time walking is merely practical, the unconsidered locomotive means between two sites. To make walking into an investigation, a ritual, a meditation, is a special subset of walking, physiologically like and philosophically unlike the way the mail carrier brings the mail and the office worker reaches the train.  Which is to say that the subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts with particular meanings.  Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.  Here this history begins to become part of the history of the imagination and the culture, of what kind of pleasure, freedom, and meaning are pursued at different times by different kinds of walks and walkers.”

“As one’s body wanders, so does one’s mind,” naturalist Walt McLaughlin once wrote, “The wilderness of the mind and the wilderness of oceans, forests, mountains, and deserts are inextricably entwined.”  Solnit agrees the landscape is less a literal place than a reflection of our own minds.  Strolling in the sultry heat of a summer twilight, we may traverse the exterior world, but we traverse our interior world as well.  As we walk away from the everyday familiarity of home, we walk into the uncharted, the unknown.  In strange lands, our thoughts take on strange new forms (even when this “strange” land is just around the block).  Suddenly we can abandon the linear route of rationality and follow the more winding path of instinct and free associative thought:  

“Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.  Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.  It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.

[…]

The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.  This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it.  A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were traveling rather than making.  And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete — for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.  Walking can also be imagined as a visual activity, every walk a tour leisurely enough both to see and think over the sights, to assimilate the new into the known.  Perhaps this is where walking’s peculiar utility for thinkers comes from.  The surprises, liberations, and clarifications of travel can sometimes be garnered by going around the block as well as going around the world, and walking travels both near and far.  Or perhaps walking should be called movement, not travel, for one can walk in circles or travel around the world immobilized in a seat, and a certain kind of wanderlust can only be assuaged by the acts of the body itself in motion, not the motion of the car, boat, or plane.  It is the movement as well as the sights going by that seems to make things happen in the mind, and this is what makes walking ambiguous and endlessly fertile: it is both means and end, travel and destination.”

rebecca solnit

Later in Wanderlust, Solnit’s friend Sono’s truck is stolen from outside her West Oakland studio.  Though most people would call losing your car a catastrophe of the highest order, Sono views it as a blessing: forced to rely on her own two feet for transportation, she develops a more intimate relationship with her surroundings.  No longer alienated in the sterile leather interiors of an automobile, she feels connected to her vibrant Bay Area neighborhood like never before: 

“There was a joy, she said, to finding that her body was adequate to get her where she was going, and it was a gift to develop a more tangible, concrete relationship to her neighborhood and its residents.  We talked about the more stately sense of time one has afoot and on public transit, where things must be planned and scheduled beforehand, rather than rushed through at the last minute, and about the sense of place that can only be gained on foot.  Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other.  On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors.  One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”

We live in an era obsessed with speed and efficiency.  Blockbuster bestsellers have titles such as “The One Minute Manager” and “The Checklist Manifesto”; magazine covers shout with headlines like “21 Tips to Become the Most Productive Person You Know!” and “Get More Done in 2 Days Than Most People Get Done in 2 Weeks!”; hundreds of apps offer systems for streamlining our schedules and monitoring every aspect of our lives from our diet to our sleep.  Ours is an age of life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.  The worth of our days, we believe, is directly proportional to how much we achieve.  Time is money and an hour well spent is an hour in which we maximize our output to input.

The result?  We dart through our days at speeds that would shock men a mere century ago.  But why does it matter if we hurry at an accelerated pace?  Don’t we at least get more work done?  The problem with the hurried rate of modern life is we sacrifice idle moments for introspection.  “Good ideas come slowly,” Brenda Ueland reminds us in her soul-enlarging classic If You Want to Write.  Hyper-efficient, we’re so concerned with crossing items off our to-do lists that we leave virtually no time for good ideas to gestate and form:

“The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between.  New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them.  Too, the rhetoric of efficiency around these technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued — that that vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloud-gazing, wandering, window-shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, or faster paced.  Even on this headland route going nowhere useful, this route that could only be walked for pleasure, people had trodden shortcuts between the switchbacks as though efficiency was a habit they couldn’t shake.  The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.  As a member of the self-employed whose time saved by technology can be lavished on daydreams and meanders, I know these things have their uses, and use them — a truck, a computer, a modem — myself, but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival.  I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

In an endearing moment of optimism and understated poetry, Solnit refutes the common misconception that city streets are grimy cesspools of violence and moral decay.  Instead of fish-netted prostitutes and switch blades, walking the streets of San Francisco, she most often meets old friends, amiable neighbors, and a magical white moon over the bay.  To walk a city street is to encounter many lovely little serendipities: you might chance upon a poster for an underground punk band you’ve been meaning to see or be handed a flier for a panel discussion on prison reform at U.C. Berkeley.  In our increasingly regimented lives, we become stagnant pools— suffocated by our regular schedule’s dull monotony.  Walking helps us rejoin the flow of life, the exhilarating stream of the unplanned and unpredictable:

“I have been threatened and mugged on the street, long ago, but I have a thousand times more encountered friends passing by, a sought-for book in a store window, compliments and greetings from my loquacious neighbors, architectural delights, posters for music and ironic political commentary on walls and telephone polls, fortune-tellers, the moon coming up between buildings, glimpses of other lives and other homes, and streets noisy with songbirds.  The random, the unscreened, allows you to find what you don’t know you are looking for, and you don’t know a place until it surprises you.  Walking is one way of maintaining a bulwark against this erosion of the mind, the body, the landscape, and the city, and every walker is a guard on patrol to protect the ineffable.”

vintage sf street

Solnit ends the introduction by returning to an earlier description of her own walk along a Sausalito hiking trail.  Much like Beethoven and Mozart, she finds the answers she seeks on long solitary strolls.  In this way, walking is both a pilgrimage of the body and a pilgrimage of the soul:

Suddenly I came out of my thoughts to notice everything around me again-the catkins on the willows, the lapping of the water, the leafy patterns of the shadows across the path.  And then myself, walking with the alignment that only comes after miles, the loose diagonal rhythm of arms swinging in synchronization with legs in a body that felt long and stretched out, almost as sinuous as a snake.  My circuit was almost finished, and at the end of it I knew what my subject was and how to address it in a way I had not six miles before.  It had not come in a sudden epiphany but with a gradual sureness, a sense of meaning like a sense of place.  When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities.  Exploring the world is one the best ways to explore the mind, and walking travels both terrains.” 

Proust on the Benefits & Limitations of Reading

It is a truth universally acknowledged that reading contributes to the public good.  As any librarian or public service announcement will tell you, the benefits of reading are too many to count.  libraryNot only does reading magnify our capacity for empathy and strengthen our ability to be open-minded, it fortifies the foundations of democracy itself.  On the societal level, literacy reduces crime, fosters freer, more stable governments, and promotes social activism.  Books empower us with the tools to be strong critical thinkers and bestow us with the gift of words to depict our world.  Books are museums, ways of preserving the wisdom of our collective past, and crystal balls that grant us insight into our possible futures.  Books are medicines that can cure almost any ailment, from the most life-threatening bouts of existential angst to more common cases of hard-to-place melancholy.  Books are lamps and life rafts, friends and teachers, time machines and time capsules.  “We read to remember.  We read to forget.  We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves,” Maria Popova once said.

British philosopher Alain De Botton insists reading has yet another benefit: it sensitizes us.  In our hyper-exposed era where we’re relentlessly besieged by sexualized images, disturbing portrayals of violence, and tasteless profanity, books offer a bastion against the inhumane forces working to desensitize us.  Rather than blunt our ability to feel distress at scenes of cruelty or anesthetize us to brutality, books make us feel: love, empathy.  And because they describe what we usually neglect— the wrinkled topography of someone’s face, the sky on a frost-bitten December morning— they can stir us from our semi-conscious stupor and remind us life is endlessly fascinating if we only pause to look. 

In his charming self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same trove of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and avoid the enticing lure of platitude and cliche, Botton argues Proust’s adoration for British art critic John Ruskin is an example of the power of books to transform us.  Proust first discovered Ruskin when he was one thousand pages into writing his first novel Jean Santeuil.  “The universe suddenly regained infinite value in my eyes,” he said of reading the great Victorian author.  Proust was so taken with Ruskin that he abandoned his novel and spent the next three years translating his idol’s prolific body of work into French. 

So why did Ruskin have such a tremendous impact on the budding author?  Botton hypothesizes in Ruskin “he found experiences that he had never been more than semiconscious of raised and beautifully assembled in language.”  Though at some level Proust surely recognized the grandeur of northern France’s great cathedrals before reading Ruskin, Ruskin helped him more keenly experience their beauty and, in so doing, restored to him a bit of the world.  In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, the influential critic minutely described one particular statue in Rouen Cathedral, a figure of a little man carved into one of the structure’s magnificent portals.  Proust had never noticed the statue before.  But by writing with the same heartfelt attention a portrait painter pays to his subject, Ruskin showed Proust that the statue was worthwhile and that, perhaps, life was as well:  

“For Proust, Ruskin’s concern for the little man had effected a kind of resurrection, one characteristic of great art.  He had known how to look at this figure, and had hence brought it back to life for succeeding generations.  Ever polite, Proust offered a playful apology to the little figure for that would have been his own inability to notice him without Ruskin as a guide (“I would not have been clever enough to find you, amongst the thousands of stones in our towns, to pick out your figure, to rediscover your personality, to summon you, to make you live again”).  It was a symbol for what Ruskin had done for Proust, and what all books might do for their readers— namely, bring back to life, from the deadness caused by habit and inattention, valuable yet neglected aspects of experience.”

monet's cathedrals

But though books possess the conscious-raising power to reinvigorate our senses and revive us from the numbing effects of over-exposure and habit, they have their limitations.  Yes, reading writers we admire can be inspiring (what a joy to revel in the inexplicable pleasure of a graceful sentence, a delight to discover a beautifully-crafted arrangement of words!).  And yes, a brilliant book can sometimes be an effective antidote for writer’s block: a prescription of Proust, for example, can inspire us to more deeply delve in our own characters’ psychology; a pill of Plath can rouse us to write with raw emotional ferocity; a spoonful of Anais Nin can rekindle our passion for the poetic aspects of language, leading us to play with figures of speech and write with more elegance and delicacy.  

But when we worship an author too fervently, he becomes the cruel yardstick with which we measure our own efforts.  “Why can’t we write with Didion’s understated restraint?” we wonder, unable to scribble a single sentence since reading her landmark essay “Why I Write.”  “Why can’t my sentences sing with the lyrical simplicity of Solnit’s?  Or mesmerize with the exquisite beauty and intricacy of Fitch?”  It is often we bookish writers who find ourselves most debilitated by self-hatred and self-doubt.  Because we’re so well-versed in the canon— or, as Matthew Arnold once termed, “the best that’s been thought and said”— we possess a centuries-old library in the shelves of our heads, hundreds upon hundreds of volumes with which to compare ourselves.  When we craft a sharp bit of wordplay, we might momentarily delight in our own cleverness only to glance backward and see the towering presence of Shakespeare himself.  Our attempts at double entendre are god-awful compared to his.  Certainly our wit will never be a match for the bard’s! 

So though reading is invaluable to a writer’s formation, too much reading can discourage us from writing at all.  After all, why put pen to page if x, y and z author has already said what you wanted to say and said it better?  Even the most talented writers have opened the pages of their favorite novels and felt a terrible sense of their own inadequacy.  Take titan of modernism Virginia Woolf.  Despite her indisputable genius, she— too— suffered agonizing periods of self-doubt after encountering what she thought was the work of a superior writer.  In a 1922 letter to English painter and fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, Roger Fry, she raved about In Search of Lost Time, the magnum opus of Mr. Marcel Proust:

“Well – what remains to be written after that?  I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes.  How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped – and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance?  One has to put the book down and gasp.”

Virginia Woolf

Reading Proust, Woolf felt nothing short of wonderstruck.  She was astounded by his facility with language, his ability to weave a story with both the “utmost sensitivity” and “utmost tenacity.”  So in awe was she of his talents that she came to question her own.  She wanted desperately to write like Proust but her attempts at imitation revealed— much to her dismay— that she could only write like herself.  Later she told Fry:

“Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out a sentence.  Oh if I could write like that!  I cry.  And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures— there’s something sexual in it— that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t.”  

Even after writing Mrs. Dalloway, a masterpiece of never-before-seen stream-of-consciousness that would come to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century, Woolf still felt herself lacking.  “I wonder if this time I have achieved something?” she confessed in her diary, “Well, nothing anyhow compared to Proust…he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.” 

Thankfully, Woolf didn’t let her admiration for Proust discourage her too much: she continued to write and would go on to publish such groundbreaking novels and essays as Orlando and A Room of One’s Own.  But hers is still a cautionary tale: we shouldn’t exalt human beings to the status of idols.  If our admiration for an author slips into adulation, if we glorify books as if they were bibles, we’ll eventually discount our own talent.  The result?  The Virginia Woolfs of the world will try to write the next In Search of Lost Time instead of To the Lighthouse.

Proust on How Cliche Narrows Our Perceptions & the Obligation of the Artist to Create His Own Language

Proust praised his friend Gabriel de La Rochefoucauld’s novel The Lover and the Doctorproust as a “superb, tragic work of complex and consummate craftsmanship” but criticized its reliance on cliches: “There are some fine big landscapes in your novel,” Proust began, “but at times one would like them to be painted with more originality.  It’s quite true that the sky is on fire at sunset, but it’s been said too often, and the moon that shines discreetly is a trifle dull.”

Why, we might ask, did Proust loathe the cliched phrase?  After all, when we break up with someone, isn’t it occasionally true that “it’s not you, it’s me”?  Don’t beautiful women have “long blonde hair”?  Aren’t attractive men usually of the “tall, dark, and handsome” variety?  For a cliche to gain popularity and enter the common idiom, it must have at one time expressed a truth in a never-before-seen way.  To describe a tidy girl as “neat as a pin” or a quick wit as “sharp as a tack” once was an original articulation.  At first, these phrases had flavor, spice.  But with overuse, such expressions became insipid and trite. 

Nearly all writers share Proust’s distaste for cliche.  “Anything you’ve heard or read before is a cliche,” Janet Fitch once told an interviewer, “If you’re a writer, you have to invent from scratch.”  Francine Du Plessix Gray agreed.  “Combat the embrace of all words that are too long married,” she instructed her pupils.  In a wonderfully un-cliched metaphor, she likened the tired phrase to tepid sex, a “form of verbal missionary position.”  For her, good writing was intoxicating, passionate, hot-blooded.  A writer who didn’t titillate us with his every word was a writer who failed in his one goal: to seduce us.

In his delightful self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, the same compendium of Proustian wisdom that taught us how to be happy in lovereawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, and remember the benefits and limitations of reading, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we should avoid cliches “because the way we speak is ultimately linked to the way we feel, because how we describe the world must at some level reflect how we first experience it.”  The problem with stale expressions is not only that they bore instead of captivate our audience— they are too imprecise and vague.  And when our language is inexact— general instead of specific, superficial instead of complex— so is our experience.  Like Rebecca Solnit, who maintained “calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness,” Botton believes how we describe the world determines how we perceive it.  We all write our own stories.  But if we only depict life in the most unoriginal terms, we’ll only see it in the most unoriginal ways.  Art which is truly novel, on the other hand, has the “ability to restore to our sight a distorted or neglected aspect of reality.”  A fresh portrayal of something mundane, like Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, can resuscitate us from the slumber of our customary ways of seeing and help us understand the world in a new way:

“In 1872, the year after Proust was born, Claude Monet exhibited a canvas entitled Impression, Sunrise.  It depicted the harbor of Le Havre at dawn, and allowed viewers to discern, through a thick morning mist and a medley of unusually choppy brushstrokes, the outline of an industrial seafront, with an array of cranes, smoking chimneys, and buildings.  

The canvas looked a bewildering mess to most who saw it, and particularly irritated the critics of the day, who pejoratively dubbed its creator and the loose group to which he belonged ‘impressionists,’ indicating that Monet’s control of the technical side of painting was so limited that all he had been able to achieve was a childish daubing, bearing precious little resemblance to what dawns in Le Havre actually look like.  

The contrast with the judgement of the art establishment a few years later could hardly have been greater.  It seemed that not only could the Impressionists use the brush after all, but that their technique was masterful at capturing a dimension of visual reality overlooked by less talented contemporaries.  What could explain such a dramatic reappraisal?  Why had Monet’s Le Havre been a great mess, then a remarkable representation of a Channel port?  

The Proustian answer starts with the idea that we are all in the habit of ‘giving to what we feel a form of expression which differs so much from, and which we nevertheless after a little time take to be, reality itself.’  

In this view, our notion of reality is at variance with actual reality, because it is so often shaped by inadequate or misleading accounts.  Because we are surrounded by cliched depictions of the world, our initial response to Monet’s Impression, Sunrise may well be to balk and complain that Le Havre looks nothing like that…If Monet is a hero in this scenario, it is because he has freed himself from the traditional, and in some ways limited, representations of Le Havre, in order to attend more closely to his own, uncorrupted impressions of the scene.”  

impression sunrise

A stylist who fashioned his own distinct manner of expression, Proust believed artists had a single responsibility: to develop an authentic voice.  “Every writer is obliged to create his own language, as every violinist is obliged to create his own tone,” he wrote.  No path is more difficult or disheartening than the path to discover our own style: the trail is not straight and clear-cut but winding, obstructed by the overgrown shrubbery of insecurity and self-doubt.  We worry that our ideas are stupid and unoriginal, that we’re not talented or witty or interesting enough.  So we make feeble attempts to be other people, at various times imitating the controlled compactness of Hemingway and the ritzy lyricism of Fitzgerald.  Writing begins with mimicry, impersonation.  But, for Proust, a “writer” only earns the elevated title of “artist” when he finally strips away the costumes of his idols and finds the confidence to dress like himself.

While Proust contended the artist had an obligation to create his own language, leading man of letters and literary editor of La Revue de Paris Louis Ganderax believed the writer had a duty to adhere to the established rules of the language.  At one time appointing himself “Defender of the French Language,” Ganderax was a linguistic traditionalist who took offense to the slightest deviation from conventional grammar, the kind of pompous purist for whom the use of “good” instead of “well” was an unforgivable faux pas.  According to his philosophy of art, literature had to sound literary: a good writer was one who wrote with the grandiloquence of his 19th century forefathers.  Proust despised this overblown mode of expression.  When in 1908, he came upon an excerpt from Ganderax’s preface to Georges Bizet’s collection of correspondence, he laughed, calling it a piece of “enormous, comic pretension.”  So outraged was he that he wrote to George Bizet’s wife, Madame Straus:

“‘Why, when he can write so well, does he write as he does?’  ‘Why, when one says ‘1871,’ add ‘that most abominable of all years,’  Why is Paris dubbed ‘the great city’ and Delaunay ‘the master painter’?  Why must emotion inevitably be ‘discreet’ and good-naturedness ‘smiling’ and bereavements ‘cruel’, and countless other fine phrases that I can’t remember?'” 

proust #2But what, exactly, was so terrible about Ganderax’s prose?  Because Ganderax insisted on upholding the traditions of his literary predecessors, Proust believed, he could only spew the most meaningless cliches and banal ideas.  The result was a parody of literary-ness, writing that perhaps sounded sophisticated but contributed nothing new or interesting to the topic.  “I don’t mean to say that I like original writers who write badly,” he clarified to Mrs. Straus, “I prefer— and perhaps it’s a weakness— those who write well.  But they begin to write well only on the condition that they’re original, that they create their own language.  Correctness, perfection of style do not exist…The only way to defend language is to attack it, yes, yes, Madame Straus!” 

Proust on How to Be Happy in Love

lovers“Who, being loved, is poor?” witty master of aphorisms Oscar Wilde once wondered.  Though it might be an overstatement to say “all you need is love,” ancient philosophers and contemporary science agree that satisfying relationships are a crucial component, if not the crucial component, of human happiness.  In one of the longest studies of its kind, the Harvard Study of Adult Development followed 724 men in hopes of discovering the secrets to a good life.  Over the course of nearly 80 years, they observed their defeats and triumphs, their careers and love lives.  What they found was astonishing: more than IQ, social class, or genetics, quality relationships, particularly marriages, were the number one determiner of a fulfilling existence.  Not only did a harmonious matrimony dictate their overall life satisfaction— it had a far-reaching impact on their health.  Those in loving marriages, not those who had achieved wealth or prestige or our societal ideal of social status, were found to live longer than both their unmarried and unhappily married counterparts.  In fact, those who were most satisfied in their relationships at age fifty were the healthiest group at eighty.  Marital contentment was even a better predictor of later health than cholesterol.

Because meaningful relationships are so critical to our emotional and physical health, we should be alarmed by the current state of romantic love.  In the U.S. alone, nearly half of marriages end in divorce.  My generation is more reluctant to get married and often postpones, if not completely forgoes, tying the knot.  Though the rise of casual hookup apps like Tinder give the impression that millennials at least have red-hot sex lives, they’re actually having less sex than young people a generation ago.  Experts attribute the “sex recession” to everything from the widespread availability of porn to increasing psychological fragility and fear of intimacy (after all, masturbating to a cold blue computer screen requires a lot less vulnerability than being intimate with someone).  Still others argue the advent of online dating has made approaching the opposite sex in public socially awkward, even taboo.  The result?  Loneliness is at an all-time high with nearly 20% of Americans reporting they’re dissatisfied with their lives because they don’t have close confidantes.  

To say we in the modern era are suffering a crisis of love would be a gross understatement.  If nothing is more essential to human happiness than having a partner who can act as a lifeboat amid the sea of life’s misfortunes, it’s vital we learn how to sustain gratifying long-term relationships.  Based on our staggering divorce rates and dwindling number of sex partners, we clearly need a teacher to instruct us.  In his ever-enlightening self-help manual How Proust Can Change Your Life, British philosopher Alain De Botton argues we can find no better mentor than Marcel Proust, the fine French novelist who also taught us how to suffer successfully, reawaken to the beauty of ordinary things, remember the benefits and limitations of reading, and avoid the lure of platitudes and cliches.  At the beginning of the chapter “How to Be Happy in Love,” the example of the telephone illustrates the difficulty of keeping a long-term relationship alive.  When first invented, we stood before the telephone astounded at its ability to allow us to communicate across once unsurpassable distances.  Now, with just the dial of a few numbers, we could speak to someone over seven thousand miles away in Mumbai from the comfort of our studio apartment in New York.  But within a span of only a few decades, this technological wonder became just another staple of the average household, as commonplace as cutlery and toasters:

“Take the unemotive example of the telephone.  Bell invented it in 1876.  By 1900, there were thirty thousand phones in France.  Proust acquired one and particularly liked a service called the “theater-phone,” which allowed him to listen to live opera and theater in Paris venues.  

He might have appreciated his phone, but he noted how quickly everyone else began taking theirs for granted.  As early as 1907, he wrote that the machine was

a supernatural instrument whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or to order an ice cream.

Moreover, if the confiserie had a busy line or the connection to the tailor a hum, instead of admiring the technological advances that had frustrated our sophisticated desires, we tended to act with childish ingratitude.  

Since we are children who play with divine forces without shuddering before their mystery, we only find the telephone “convenient,” or rather, as we are spoilt children, we find that “it isn’t convenient,” we fill Le Figaro with our complaints. 

A mere thirty-one years separated Bell’s invention from Proust’s sad observations on the state of  French telephone-appreciation.  It had taken little more than three decades for a technological marvel to cease attracting admiring glances and turn into a household object that we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn were we to suffer at its hands the minor inconvenience of a delayed glace au chocolate.”

lovers #2

Just as we take even the most miraculous technological innovations for granted once they become part of our day-to-day, we ungrateful mortals struggle to appreciate our significant others once we’ve committed to lifelong monogamy.  Recalling the narrator of Proust’s masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, Botton suggests our capacity for appreciation diminishes as something becomes more familiar:

“As a boy, Proust’s narrator longs to befriend the beautiful, vivacious Gilberte, whom he has met playing in the Champs-Elysees.  Eventually, his wish comes true.  Gilberte becomes his friend, and invites him regularly to tea at her house.  There she cuts him slices of cake, ministers to his needs, and treats him with great affection.  

He is happy, but, soon enough, not as happy as he should be.  For so long, the idea of having tea at Gilberte’s house was like a vague, chimerical dream, but after quarter of an hour in her drawing room, it is the time before he knew her, before she was cutting him cake and showering him with affection, that starts to grow chimerical and vague.  

The outcome can only be a certain blindness to the favors he is enjoying.  He will soon forget what there is to be grateful for because the memory of a Gilberte-less life will fade, and with it, evidence of what there is to savor.  The smile on Gilberte’s face, the luxury of her tea, and the warmth of her manners will eventually become such a familiar part of his life that there will be as much incentive to notice them as there is to notice omnipresent elements like trees, clouds, and telephones.” 

At the cornerstone of both Botton and Proust’s conception of a fulfilling life is the ability to see clearly— and not just in the literal sense of visually discerning an object in physical reality, but in the deeper sense of seeing the world in all its miraculous grandeur and beauty.  While artists are experts at looking closely, we in regular life often fail to exercise our perceptive faculties.  We might “see” a night sky but never notice the way charcoal clouds blot out an erie moon, the way the silhouettes of bare branches form a sinister backdrop to a still autumn night.  We might “see” our husband or wife but never notice, truly notice, their rare ability to listen or the sweetness of their dimples or the innocence of their eyes.  It is a tragic irony that the more we see an object, the more we become blind:

“Though we usually assume that seeing an object requires us to have visual contact with it, and that seeing a mountain involves visiting the Alps and opening our eyes, this may only be the first and in a sense the inferior part of seeing, for appreciating an object properly may also require us to re-create it in our mind’s eye.  

After looking at a mountain, if we shut our lids and dwell on the scene internally, we are led to seize on its important details.  The mass of visual information is interpreted and the mountain’s salient features identified: its granite peaks, its glacial indentations, the mist hovering above the tree linedetails that we would previously have seen but not for that matter noticed.

 […]

Having something physically present sets up far from ideal circumstances in which to notice it.  Presence may in fact be the very element that encourages us to ignore or neglect it, because we feel we have done all the work simply in securing visual contact.” 

So how, exactly, can we apply these insights to be happier in love and cultivate more satisfying bonds?  In the Proustian worldview, the key to marital bliss, in fact any bliss, is looking anew: in other words, noticing, not just seeingour partners.  Rather than regard our husbands with the blasé indifference that extinguishes the flames of millions of marriages (“How was your day?” we ask more out of obligation than genuine interest only to half pay attention when he replies), we can reignite passion by pretending we’re first getting to know each other.  As Yiyun Li so beautifully articulates, the people closest to us are as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car.  Because the institution of marriage requires we live with the same person day after day, we begin to think we’ve charted the entire map of our lover’s heart; after all, after so much time together, how could any territory of his nature possibly remain unplumbed?  But this sense of familiarity is a mirage: though physical proximity ensures we literally see our partners, we rarely notice the many facets that comprise who they are.  As Mary Gaitskill observes, man is as multi-dimensional as a Russian nesting doll: he projects an outward public persona that conceals countless other selves.  The routine nature of matrimony convinces us there’s no land of our lover left to explore when in actuality there’s still many new worlds and many new shores:

“Deprivation quickly drives us into the process of appreciation, which is not to say that we have to be deprived in order to appreciate things, but rather that we should learn a lesson from what we naturally do when we lack something, and apply it to conditions where we don’t.

If long acquaintance with a lover so often breeds boredom, breeds a sense of knowing the person too well, the problem may ironically be that we do not know him or her well enough.  Whereas the initial novelty of the relationship could leave us in no doubt as to our ignorance, the subsequent reliable physical presence of the lover and the routines of communal life can delude us into thinking that we have achieved genuine, and dull, familiarity; whereas it may be no more than a fake sense of familiarity that physical presence fosters.”

It is a rule of human nature that desire begins with denial, infatuation with inaccessibility.  After all, who consumes us with the most ardent longing: our husbands whom we’ve managed to acquire or the sharply-dressed guy in the break room we barely converse with but see once in awhile?  In high school, who was our helpless obsession: our sweetest, most considerate guy friend or the hot punk we only observed from afar?  What lies just beyond our grasp is what most tantalizes us.  Proust was well aware of this fact.  “There is no doubt that a person’s charms are less frequently a cause of love than a remark such as: ‘No, this evening I shan’t be free,'” he once said.  Why is it that the rebuff of a dinner invitation makes a love interest all the more attractive?  For Proust, the answer once again rests in this idea of seeing vs. noticing: because our capacity for appreciation is gradually dulled by the habitual nature of domesticity, we merely see our long-term partners instead of notice them.  If couples don’t make a conscious and consistent effort to stoke the flames of romance, the intensity of desire they once felt will most certainly wane until what was once a lustful blaze will be smothered by the monotony of routine.  Our lovers will no longer hold interest for us because we know them too intimately (or, that is, we think we know them too intimately).

The man in the break room, on the other hand, will continue to allure us because he carries an aura of mystery.  Because our desire for him has not been fulfilled, he remains enticing.  The fact that he’s a distant crush and not a husband explains why he’s a source of fascination: the moment a lust is gratified, the moment when what we desperately yearn for is finally possessed is almost always unsatisfying— at least, not as satisfying as we imagined.  Attainment is ultimately disenchanting.  It is the delay of gratification, it is the not having that makes everything from a potential lover to a pair of shoes appealing.  In Search for Lost Time demonstrates this lesson through the characters of the Duchess and Albertine: 

“Both Albertine and the Duchess de Guermantes are interested in fashion.  However, Albertine has very little money and the Duchess owns half of France.  The Duchesse’s wardrobes are therefore overflowing; as soon as she sees something she wants, she can send for her dressmaker and her desire is fulfilled as rapidly as hands can sew.  Albertine, on the other hand, can hardly buy anything, and has to think at length before she does so.  She spends hours studying clothes, dreaming of a particular coat or hat or dressing gown.  The result is that though Albertine has far fewer clothes than the Duchesse, her understanding, appreciation, and love of them is far greater.

[…]

Proust compares Albertine to a student who visits Dresden after cultivating a desire to see a particular painting, whereas the Duchesse is likely a wealthy tourist who travels without any desire or knowledge, and experiences nothing but bewilderment, boredom and exhaustion when she arrives.  

Which emphasizes the extent to which physical possession is only one component of appreciation.  If the rich are fortunate in being able to travel to Dresden as soon as the desire to do so arises, or buy a dress after they have just seen it in a catalog, they are cursed because the speed with which their wealth fulfills their desires.  No sooner have they thought of Dresden than they can be on a train there; no sooner have they seen a dress than it can be in their wardrobe.  They therefore have no opportunity to suffer the interval between desire and gratification which the less privileged endure, and which, for all its apparent unpleasantness, has the incalculable benefit of allowing people to know and fall deeply in love with paintings in Dresden, hats, dressing gowns, and someone who isn’t free that evening.”

french women.jpg

Now let’s turn to a more controversial topic: sex.  What did the legendary French author have to say about getting busy between the sheets?  Throughout time, women were told chastity was a requisite for finding a husband.  Even after the feminist and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s, our mothers still clung to the conservative belief that we should wait as long as possible before engaging in the ultimate act of intimacy.  “Why would a man buy the whole ice cream truck if you’re giving away the popsicles for free?” they cautioned.  In other words, why would a man ever exchange vows to remain faithful in “sickness and health” if he already achieved his ultimate aim?  

Though as a culture we no longer hold the outdated belief that a woman needs to remain “pure” to be attractive, Proust might say our mothers— for all their antiquated ideas of gender roles and offensive double standards— were in some ways correct.  “Women who are to some extent resistant, whom one cannot possess at once, whom one does not even know at first whether one will ever possess are the only interesting ones,” he once wrote.  Now, before we condemn Proust as an unforgivable misogynist, he believed this principle equally applied to men.  If love is three quarters curiosity as quintessential lady’s man Casanova once said, love wilts as familiarity grows.  Compare your attitude toward where you live to an exotic locale.  What do you look at with more longing: the cobblestone streets and sparkling waters of Venice, Italy or the well-trotted roads of your daily route?  Obviously, the former.  However, if you could too easily secure the object of your desire, if because of an overflowing bank account or an abundance of frequent flier miles, you could fly halfway across the world to gaze upon St. Mark’s Basilica with little difficulty, the experience would be less satisfying.  Within an hour of suffering the impossibly long lines of Italy in summer, you’d be dreaming of yet another faraway destination: the idyllic English countryside, perhaps, or a breathtaking beach in the Caribbean.

This elucidates the basis of Proust’s theory of desire: we are incapable of appreciating what can be obtained with little effort.  If we sleep with someone on the first date (or even the second or third), there’s no more mystery, curiosity: the once exciting possibility of traversing the societal boundaries of clothes and exploring the forbidden territory of another’s body becomes as boring and predictable as our well-trodden route to work.  For Proust, this was the fundamental problem with the prostitute: “because she both wishes to entice a man and yet is commercially prevented from doing what is most likely to encourage love— namely, tell him that she is not free tonight…the outcome is clear, and therefore real, lasting desire unlikely.”  So if we want to captivate our lovers, we must maintain the mystery.