Sunday, June 13, 2010

Theory Hungry

This morning, reading The New Yorker, I came across Jeffrey Eugenides “Extreme Solitude.” A wave of nostalgia hit my chest. The story is set at Brown, my alma mater, and written from the perspective of a hyper-self-conscious Semiotics student, Madeleine, who hangs out at all my old haunts (the Ratty, the Blue Room, Level B in Rockefeller Library where “the stacks exuded a vivifying smell of mold”). Perhaps “nostalgia” is the wrong word, for I don’t deny feeling a good deal of ambivalence, too. But the story actually made me miss academic life. That fragile, convoluted, cut-off-from-reality life that pushed me to the brink of despair.

No doubt, my short-lived career as an English prof was a debacle (if my therapy bills are any gage). Still, grad school was fun. Undergrad even more so. There’s something delicious about spending one’s days lounging around seminar tables discussing concepts like “subalterity,” “coevalness” and “queer theory.” Sitting at a sidewalk café with Althusser propped on a bookstand, Moleskin notebook open. Not a bad day’s work.

But ultimately – as Eugenides brilliantly illuminates – too much thinking and theorizing is a killjoy, especially when it comes to love. Madeleine is having a tryst with a classmate, Leonard, debating whether it’s mere sexual attraction or something more. When she reads BarthesA Lover’s Discourse, she’s struck by how the text casts light on her own predicament:

“The necessity for this book is to be found in the following consideration: that the lover’s discourse is today of an extreme solitude.”


attente / waiting

Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns). . . .

Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.”

The more Madeleine reflects on it, the more she understands “that extreme solitude didn’t only describe the way she was feeling about Leonard. It explained how she’d always felt when she was in love. It explained what love was like and, just maybe, what was wrong with it.”

It’s the anticipation of love and rapture that becomes alluring in itself. Put simply, Madeleine only wants him if she can’t have him. Some barrier to fulfillment is necessary – such is the perverse structure of desire. She would rather be burying herself in a book, thinking about him, longing for him, luxuriating in pure solitude, than getting it on.

I recall having a conversation with my therapist about my own need for distance. It was curious, to say the least, why I always gravitated, for the longest time, to lovers who lived in different cities, boyfriends on the other side of the continent. Rather than face-to-face contact and flesh-and-blood intimacy, I craved love letters, witty emails, kinky text messages…. spelling out a kind of scenario that followed the formula of: if you were with me now, I would do X…. It was sexier in my mind.

Photo from: here


Mimi said...

Is this different yet similar to courtly love?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up on the Eugenides story. I get the New Yorker and can never keep up! That was one I had this post a lot:)

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Thanks for your comments!

Mimi, I hadn't thought about it that way, but you are quite right.... The experience is a kind of "postmodern" courtly love! It plays on the contradiction between the erotic and spiritual, culminating in an inward turn to the lover's own state of mind.


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.