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 Barthes’ A 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