varieties of longing

“Nobody longs like a Writer;  the Writer has special tools to make his or her own ache-inducing fantasies too real…  but never for long enough.” –Pastor Prime


The thing to remember about real Writers is that they do write, first of all, for themselves. Very much like a genuine narcissist dressing up for her or his own self-obsessed approval. Sure, the narcissist aims to impress with his/her wardrobe but if you don’t get her/his look, your opinion ceases to matter,  by default. The narcissist’s narcissism does not rely on your supportive feedback for energy and neither does the Writer’s work. The Writer’s energy comes from internal compulsions more powerful than all of society’s deep pockets of available discouragement.

One kind of literary energy is the Novelist’s compulsion to improve on the work of the sloppiest Demiurge in the pantheon, which being Fate.

Fate is a lazy, haphazard and hair-raisingly disinterested craftsperson (craftsthing?). Try to find long, graceful, logical and allusive through-lines in the narratives Fate crafts with its human utensils:  you can’t. Life is just a bubbling mess of false starts, dead ends, mishaps, non sequiturs and meandering plots with dud climaxes. The Novelist notes this bubbling mess and feels the unignorable itch to do better, to organize the material better, to give it an Artful shape but,  deeper than that and on darker, redder strata, there’s the Wish Fulfillment thing; the soul’s coal of Longing.  There are varieties of Longing and longings power The Novel. 

Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita on a surge of Longing’s hot eloquence, yes,  but lesser critics (this includes you, Martin Amis) misinterpret the surge and seem to believe that Nabokov wrote Lolita to fulfill, partially, a longing to sleep with little girls. While I don’t doubt that Vlad gave the eye to 19-year-old Wellesley co-eds often enough and even kissed a few, a 19-year-old co-ed is not a child and categorically not what child-molesters fancy. Pedos do not, as a rule, sign up to teach at colleges; they target high schools, junior high schools, grammar schools, Sunday Schools and Kindergartens. No functionally het male of any age younger than 90 can look at a shapely, beautiful 19-year-old woman and go “meh”, whether or not he is foolish enough to think she wouldn’t, in turn (unless he were rich/ famous) go “meh” about him. If Vlad had ever diddle-dandled a 13-year-old (like the universally-admired Bowie most definitely did) we’d know about it by now.

The wish Vlad fulfilled in writing Lolita was not Lo herself but Quilty, the inky incubus who twits, outwits and checkmates upper-middlebrow Humbert at every turn and in high de Bergeracian style. Quilty is Vlad’s stand-in, Humbert is Edmund Wilson and Lolita (the girl and book) are English itself and/or English Lit. Chucklingly superior Quilty was Vlad’s American dream-self and the fuck-stuff in Lolita was a metaphor, a metaphor Vlad was too peasant-twittingly lofty to avoid using. It’s a powerful metaphor, as Rape-themed Metaphors are, and VN pays the price for using it. But the metaphor is barely adjacent to the substance of VN’s Longing.

Vlad trounces Bunny Wilson in his Wish Fulfilling Lolita. The sub-theme (red herring/ Macguffin) of pederasty supercharges the proceedings with ten thousand volts of proximity to the forbidden because Vlad knew how to make a splash. If Lolita, the girl-character, had been 19, or 30, would we be “talking” about the book, still? Would anyone have ever pretended to attempt to read it in its Byzantinity?

If you “know” the Nabokov of interviews and autobiographical prose, you know Vlad was a chess-playing egotist who lived and loved to trounce. The greatest invention of Lolita (beyond (“picnic, lightning”) ) is the minor literary genre of the motel guest register in which Quilty, literally miles ahead of Humbert (in his, Quilty’s,  lordly variety of powerful cars and with the aid of a Lord’s retinue of beastly boy minions), leaves a gnomic canon for Humbert to catch up with and sweat his milky tears over, one passage at a time, and does so merely for fun… like any good cosmopolitan,  19th century aristocrat twitting any Kulak (look it up). Nabokov wrote Lolita for himself as Fate (or McFate) had done only a so-so job of handing Nabokov poor Bunny Wilson’s reputational head, on a silver platter, in real life. Martin Amis somehow misses this.

There are other varieties of Longing powering Writers through the long slogs of their novels-in-progress and, speaking of Martin Amis and Crime and Longing: could it be more obvious that Mart’s gift in writing Criminal Types (of a specific vintage) is powered by his poignant little fantasy of being taller, bigger, physically intimidating? To have swagger? That’s why the books (barring Yellow Dog) featuring cockney  “Big Mal” underworld types were Mart’s best, I think: they sort of sung. Mart’s involvement in works like Money and London Fields and The Information was the involvement of a man strapping on a logo-prosthetic,  for hours a day,  for years, for the pleasure of feeling nice and big and taking up space on the sidewalk. Most readers don’t really get how private and potent the Longings need to be in order to get the Writer through the awful task of scraping the air, every day, for months,  for 200-500 pages of words that may even fail to gel.

Think of Zadie Smith, one of Martin’s disciples: her early books (I haven’t tried the later ones) are the work of a lonely, class-stranded half-caste, writing herself some cool friends. Becoming famous, Zadie got the cool friends she wrote to create, so it would be interesting to see if there was a subsequent flagging of narrative energies as a result. I mean, writing a remix of EM Forster’s Howard’s End as On Beauty is an idea, a conceit, not a compulsion. The Longing-driven books are always better than the technical exercises and the rent-payers and the contractual obligations. The real Writers, I think, remain close to their Longings. The Subconscious does the lion’s share of the creative work and the rest of the Writer is stuck with the typing.

(It’s all very Freudian and Freud, incidentally, wrote his best novels under the influence of wanting to fuck his Mom, a desire very few among us can relate to; as soon as I could figure out what my Mom actually was, as a mammal, I strove to fuck methodically away from her, as, surely, gene-hygiene requires*)…




But now we get to it, for there are still other varieties of Longing  which power Writers through the glittering tedium of building worlds from printed squiggles and so let’s swing our scanners to focus on a biggie: The EFI. The Exalted Female Ideal. Central to some of the biggest American books of the second half of the 20th century, I’d reckon.

So many postWar American penis-bearing Writers revealed their Longing for an Exalted Female Ideal in the flesh of their texts and this strikes me as a peculiarly Yankee-Boomer thing. 

I’m not sure that (eg) European Writers believe in an Exalted Female Ideal at all; they may be constitutionally immune to that kind of Kitsch (Kundera defines kitsch as the “denial of shit”), which is why European Intellectuals (all things being equal) often seem cynical or rude compared to their boyish(ly questing) American counterparts. The American Writers I’m thinking of seem(ed) open to a kind of heterosexual Mysticism that modern British/European Writers would feel embarrassed to advertize. Tennyson, with his Guinevere and Elaine and Lady of the Lake,  of course, would have loved it (the heterosexual Mysticism). Blake too. The lasts of the hetero-Mystical Writers in that line were probably DH Lawrence and Robert Graves with the Kali-inflected, rather Oedipal White Goddesses who chased them erect through their own sticky oeuvres. Ends of an Era.

Not in America: that EFI business was far from tapering to an end, Stateside,  when Graves died in Majorca in 1985 (though the Exalted Female Ideal mutated into a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in America,  during the overt Infantilizations of the 9/11 era, so perhaps the grand literary era of the EFI could be said to have lasted from c. 1945 to 2001).

The Exalted Female Ideal in 20th century America Lit may be a residual psychic artifact of Hollywood, which was so good at projecting Lauren-Bacall-in-The-Big Sleep-types for budding American writers to dream upon. Hollywood’s reach has extended far beyond the shores of the continental US for almost a century but while “ferners” can be infected with gold-fever regarding “The American Way of Life,” only an American could bathe in Hollywood’s sepulchral nightmind illuminations and mistake its fantasies for Life. Especially when it comes to “Love”.

When I first arrived in prosaic Europe, in 1990, I was struck by the absence of a notion of “romance” as I knew it. Sex was about Health (mental/ physical) and coupling was a prosaic socio-economic project with a three-month prelude or “honeymoon” leading to an immediate default of banal duties and advantages.  To gaze, as Americans will, upon the Love Object/ Subject with the glazed look of sentimental epiphany, in Europe is to look foolish. Goethe’s das Ewig-Weibliche comes closest to being a Mittel European version of the EFI and it’s far less “exalting” of the “Eternal Feminine” than an idealistically bookish American college boy, reading Tennyson, in 1960, would allow.

Philip Roth was born in ’33, Updike in ’32, Pynchon in ’37 … and  The Big Sleep came out in ’46.  Lauren Bacall was 21 in The Big Sleep and Grace Kelly was 25 or 26 in To Catch a Thief (1955) and both post-Noir  (and pastel-Noir, respectively)  female characters were bewitchingly impossible in Real Life. That cool, self-assured, witty, worldly, tough and flawlessly sexy… at any age under 40? Not on this planet. I wasn’t around in the 1940s or for most of the 1950s (born in ’59) to have my libido stamped with Warner Bros.’  or MGM’s postWar fantasias but I’m sure there were dozens of variations on the Bacall/Kelly formula and I’m sure they infected several generations of Artists/Writers.

(Neither ’46’s It’s a Wonderful Life nor ’58’s Vertigo were big hits when they came out but both became huge during 1980s revivals, so Kim Novak and Donna Reed, like Beatrice Dalle in 1986’s Betty Blue, were probably the essences of Exalted Female Ideals for straight male post-’80s novelists to chase across their books, though I haven’t read that crop thoroughly enough to out them).

Pynchon chases his semiotic iterations of the EFI across his novel V (“V” is Bacall’s character’s first initial in The Big Sleep)  and he embodies Her in Oedipa Maas, the female detective of The Crying of Lot 49 (or in Maxine Tarnow, the female detective of 2013’s Bleeding Edge).The Big Sleep, “known for its convoluted plot,” was described by Roger Ebert as the “process of a criminal investigation, not its results,” which all sounds very Pynchonian, or like Philip Roth’s postmod Marx Bros film of a book,  Operation Shylock, one of the many novels of his in which Roth chases a scatteringly fragmented version of the Bacall-in-the-Big Sleep Ideal across the tilted,  burlesquing rhythms of a pantingly horny text.

In Roth’s The Human Stain, the wished-for-Her bifurcates neatly into the quasi-illiterate Faunia Farley and the pathologically-literate Delphine Roux and the sexual dream-attentions of both characters are separated from Roth by two degrees: the desirable women are obsessed with a man-character whose story is being told by another man-character who Roth often used as a stand-in (Nathan Zuckerman). As though Roth, sexually more complicated (and more Europeanized)  than Pynchon or DeLillo (whose own Exalted Female Ideals, as in Mao II and Underworld, are well-read, world-travellingly-knowing, a bit older and straightforward statuesque knockouts) is too self-conscious about his libido to do anything but complicate his Exalted Female Ideals with grotesque irony while covering his tracks with Satire. After all, his parents read his books.

Here is Roth as Zuckerman quoting the character Coleman Silk regarding one half of the ironized Exalted Female Ideal in The Human Stain, Faunia (who happens to be a tall, skinny blonde with “big tits”):

He is in there now just with Faunia, each of them protecting the other against everyone else-each of them, to the other, comprising everyone else. There they dance, as likely as not unclothed, beyond the ordeal of the world, in an unearthly paradise of earthbound lust where their coupling is the drama into which they decant all the angry disappointment of their lives. I remembered something he’d told me Faunia had said in the afterglow of one of their evenings, when so much seemed to be passing between them. He’d said to her, “This is more than sex,” and flatly she replied, “No, it’s not. You just forgot what sex is. This is sex. All by itself. Don’t fuck it up by pretending it’s something else.”

What famous,  matrimonially twice-burnt Writer wouldn’t want to be told such great words by a sexually-available-yet-free-spirited tall, skinny blonde with the aforementioned breasts? And then Zuckerman again, in Coleman Silk’s head again, telling us about the diametrically-opposed EFI, Delphine Roux:

The diegetic. The difference between diegesis and mimesis. The bracketed experience. The proleptic quality of the text. Coleman doesn’t have to ask what all this means. He knows, in the original Greek meaning, what all the Yale words mean and what all the École Normale Supérieure words mean. Does she? As he’s been at it for over three decades, he hasn’t time for any of this stuff. He thinks: Why does someone so beautiful want to hide from the human dimension of her experience behind these words? Perhaps just because she is so beautiful. He thinks: So carefully self-appraising and so utterly deluded.

Of course she had the credentials. But to Coleman she embodied the sort of prestigious academic crap that the Athena students needed like a hole in the head but whose appeal to the faculty second-raters would prove irresistible.

At the time he thought that he was being open-minded by hiring her. But more likely it was because she was so goddamn enticing. So lovely. So alluring. And all the more so for looking so daughterly.

Delphine Roux had misread his gaze by thinking, a bit melodramatically —one of the impediments to her adroitness, this impulse not merely to leap to the melodramatic conclusion but to succumb erotically to the melodramatic spell—that what he wanted was to tie her hands behind her back: what he wanted, for every possible reason, was not to have her around. And so he’d hired her. And thus they seriously began not to get on.

Roth’s lonely and/or nostalgic Longing for the impossible woman (who says the right things or resists in the right way and is both tall and blonde and petite and Gallic), that the two characters would impossibly add up to,  jumps right off the page, even as Roth surrounds both with rusty bear traps and burning bushes and enough irony to kill a Borscht belt comedian with a degree in English Lit. The character Coleman Silk was soothed by one of these characters and tormented by the other and Roth was tormented and invigorated and pulled, with a palpable force, through the text, by both.

The contrast between Faunia-Delphine’s insistently dangerous allure and the comedic anti-allure of Drenka, the exuberant lover in Sabbath’s Theater,  is both subtle and profound: as a longtime reader of Roth, I suggest that if you want to know which female character is the Exalted Female Ideal or das Ewig-Weibliche  in a Roth book, follow the appreciative gaze of the most dignified male figure in the book. Dignified Mickey Sabbath ain’t; he’s an exercise in Imaginative Distance, an exercise, for Roth,  in the liberatory treats of deliberately writing an anti-Roth and, pursuant to that, Roth’s libido, I’m sure, was happy to say “thanks but no thanks” to Mickey’s women; even beautiful young summer-of-love Nikki (whose breasts aren’t, tellingly,  Roth’s type and whom Roth allows to make herself crazy/repulsive by needily clinging,  for days,  to the corpse of her mother). Mickey’s women aren’t what pulled Roth through that particular book; Roth had Other Longings as well.

Being vicariously undignified and longing to express that constant, unbridled rage (the rage against all the burghers and bluestockings who denounced him for the length of his career) , through Mickey Sabbath, was what pulled Roth through that masterpiece; Roth’s longing to explode. To beat his chest and howl in Michiko Kakutani’s arrogantly dim and middlebrow face.  From the climax of the book:

And that’s when he erupted. When male gorillas get angry, it’s terrifying. The largest and heaviest of the primates, they get angry on a very grand scale. He had not known that he could open his mouth so wide, nor had he ever before realized, even as a puppet performer, what a rich repertoire of frightening noises he was able to produce. The hoots, the barks, the roars—ferocious, deafening—and all the while jumping up and down and pounding his chest and tearing out by the roots the plants growing at the foot of the window, and then dashing to and fro, and at last hammering his crippled fists on the window until the frame gave way and went crashing into the room, where Rosie and Christa were screaming hysterically.

Beating a tattoo on his chest he enjoyed the most. All these years he’d had the chest for it, and all these years he had let it go to waste. The pain in his hands was excruciating but he did not desist. He was the wildest of the wild gorillas. Don’t you dare to threaten me! Thumping and thumping his large chest. Breaking apart the house.


Here’s something from Mao II: DeLillo’s uncomplicated Longing for empathy-for-the-Writer from a tall, mature, super-Hip Swedish photog, Brita (who lives in Manhattan and is named after a water filter, perhaps) who’s taking pictures of the reclusive Bill Gray and being a wonderfully engaged EFI:

She finished the roll, reloaded, reached for her cigarette, took a drag, put it down, then moved toward him and touched a hand to his face, tilting it slightly left.

“Stay now. Don’t move. I like that.”

“See, anything you want. I do it at once.”

“Touching Bill Gray.”

“Do you realize what an intimate thing we’re doing?”

“It’s in my memoirs, guaranteed. And you’re not cloddish by the way.”

“We’re alone in a room involved in this mysterious exchange. What am I giving up to you? And what are you investing me with, or stealing from me? How are you changing me? I can feel the change like some current just under the skin. Are you making me up as you go along? Am I mimicking myself? And when did women start photographing men in the first place?”

“I’ll look it up when I get home.”

“We’re getting on extremely well.”

“Now that we’ve changed the subject.”

“I’m losing a morning’s work without remorse.”

Before I met my Beloved Wife, I wrote winsome, longing, heterosexually-Mystical passages very much like that,  with similarly unlikely grace of dialogue and gesture; sometimes I made myself sick doing it. Then I met Her and I lost those particular Longings and I couldn’t write a thing for six months, the only Writer’s Block I’ve ever suffered. Until my subconscious fixed the problem and I learned to long for other things instead*.

DeLillo and Bill Gray and Brita from Mao II, again:

She heard the machine switch on and waited for the caller to speak. A man’s voice, sounding completely familiar, sounding enhanced, filling the high room, but she couldn’t identify him at first, couldn’t quite fix the context of his remarks, and she thought he might be someone she’d known years before, many years and very well, a voice that seemed to wrap itself around her, so strangely and totally near.

“You left without saying goodbye. Although that’s not why I’m calling. I’m wide awake and need to talk to someone but that’s not why I’m calling either. Do you know how strange it is for me to sit here talking to a machine? I feel like a TV set left on in an empty room. I’m playing to an empty room. This is a new kind of loneliness you’re getting me into, Brita. How nice to say your name.”

Do readers have any idea how sad Writers can make themselves when the Writing is good?








*Q: What wish do I , Augustine,  seek temporary illusory fulfillment of through The Writing?

A:  I would trade a toe to retain my modern connections and knowledge yet travel freely to the 1970s, to before the (artificial) cultural fork in the road that sent us careening toward the 11th century.  It’s not even 1215 anymore (look it up) it’s the summer of 1066. The Serfs believe in Angels and a Sun that circles a Flat Earth and openly practise Witchcraft in the millions. I want to take a day-trip to 1977 when dialogue was frankly open on Race and Sex and serious arguments thrived on polysyllabic talk shows (featuring wild-eyed novelists and radical film directors) that ruled the late night Television. In most of my long-form Fiction, I am immersed in the ’70s or characters with attitudinally ’70s-attributes. So that’s my driving literary kink; the soul’s coal of Longing I waltz through my texts with.


  1. Random, non-relevant thought on L: Nabokov’s great technical achievement in that novel is making a repugnant pedo—HH—not only relatable but sympathetic, and he does so by creating Quilty who is even more repugnant. It’s like an Overton Window kind of move thing.

    Random relevant thought on EFI Longing (and ’70s nostalgia): Disco apotheosized it, vulgarized it, democratized it.

    Random further thought: This generation of writers’ Lauren-Bacall-in-The-Big-Sleep EFI, of course, was Princess Leia. And they’ve all gone literally insane(-r) in their desire for her image as our fiction mainstream seems now to be sluicing into a SF/F mania. (Work-in-progress is pounding away at this theme, or at least attempting to.)

    The Next thought: In serious fiction, as you allude, the current Great Longing is for Identity. Is it national? Is it cultural? Is it geographical? Is it historical? Is it religious? Is it racial? Is it ethnic? Is it sexual? Is it gendered? All of course components but which do not add up to what it means to be human, to be alive, to be conscious. To be whole. All pointing out our essential feeling of brokenness, alienation. And that’s the BIG (often unspoken, unacknowledged) LONGING, innit? To be whole.

    P.S. Recently read a Gore Vidal piece (available on NYRB site) on Italo Calvino (whose work I’m exploring, that is to say plundering, now). Yes, nobody writes ’em like that anymore or talks the way he talked—to wit: in sustained thoughts that add up to arguments. Blame FB, Twitter, Insta, Snapchat. But also sitcoms, ads, and dare I say blogs and, gasp!, short stories. True, there’s something to be said for pith, but mere brevity is not necessarily that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jim!

      The genius of L is the fact that the language is too good to trigger nausea… the performance distances you, despite the detailed descriptions. An awkward hacky illiterate True Crime version of L would probably be a heartbreaking, nausea-inducing page-turner. VN’s performance keeps the Intellect engaged and the emotions distanced and generates an interesting double-novel… the faint ghost of a tragic human story hovering over the robust and brilliant expression of Literary Greatness.

      Re: Longing for Identity: well, as I stipulated, in the genuine stuff (in which the Longing is real) the effect is powerful… but 80% of the “Longing for Identity” stuff I’ve read is cool, calculated, zilch-revealing hackwork. It’s my observation that, increasingly, COOL/ CALCULATED/ ZILCH-REVEALING HACK WORK is the wave of the Now/Future, because it’s easy to produce/ market/ consume. And no dangerous anti-Hegemony messages are trojaned in it

      PS Re: Calvino: HUGE influence when I was a kid; Cosmicomics/ T-Zero blew my ten-year-old mind. Years later, the (half-Italian) woman I dated in Stockholm told me how Calvino was her aunt’s close friend… a factoid that very nearly hooked me! (laugh)


      1. Speaking of Longing: have you ever read Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils? Great book, hilarious and so forth but also the most heartbreaking example of a Writer exposing the raw seam of his terrible Longing I’ve ever read. Amis Sr. walked out on his marriage to Amis Jr.’s mother and regretted that ’til his very end; you can see him trying to fix that in this novel … only, and here’s the problem, he goes and “improves” the character representing the wife he dumped in real life, making her lots cooler/hotter than the template… which is what got him stuck in the Bitter Regret Box in the first place, no? Oi, the tragic and self-reproducing ironies! In The Old Devils, the character most embodying Kingsley (Peter) gets his second chance… I’m sure Kingsley envied his character as he wrote him.


    2. “Random relevant thought on EFI Longing (and ’70s nostalgia): Disco apotheosized it, vulgarized it, democratized it.”

      Sure, for Duh Masses… but I don’t see Roth/ DeLillo/Pynchon being much informed by the Disco-Aesthetic. The Disco (Warhol?) version of EFI is some kind of busty gold statuette denoting “success” or Fame, isn’t it? In the second part of the essay I’m more concerned with the nerdy/ needy/ questingly self-wounding libidos of the Writer Race and the paradox that the harder/better a Writer dreams, the more brilliantly it self-tantalizingly hurts.


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