LONG­ING, IN THE SENSE OF SEPA­RA­TION EN­DURED, BE­COMES AL­MOST HEROIC

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

THOSE in­dus­tries it hasn’t evis­cer­ated, the in­ter­net seems to have trans­formed for the bet­ter. This was brought home to me re­cently at the of­fices of a pros­per­ous ar­chi­tec­tural firm with its HQ in Syd­ney: the com­puter al­lows ar­chi­tects in dif­fer­ent cities — in dif­fer­ent coun­tries — to brain­storm ideas in real time; to send video of a con­cept draw­ing, as it is be­ing ex­e­cuted, to clients and col­lab­o­ra­tors.

There’s a big wow fac­tor to all this. It’s fun. It’s em­pow­er­ing. It has­tens and deep­ens the de­sign process. In fact it’s hard to imag­ine a down­side. I don’t see any­one call­ing for an ar­chi­tec­tural equiv­a­lent of the retro slow-food move­ment.

You have to won­der, though, about the im­pact of this ge­o­graph­i­cal and spa­tial com­pres­sion on other as­pects of life. Dis­tance has been tamed by Skype, ge­og­ra­phy do­mes­ti­cated by Google Earth, and his­tory archived by Wiki. Ab­sence, mean­while, has be­come an anachro­nism. And it’s this, I think, that needs to be noted.

I re­mem­ber the first time I re­ceived an SMS while trav­el­ling over­seas: I’d barely stepped off the plane and friends were ask­ing about the weather in Barcelona. Now it’s all about pic­tures and videos: press a few buttons, peck in an ad­dress, and your smil­ing mug en­joy­ing a beer in Mu­nich is be­ing viewed at home in Bate­man’s Bay.

But the ob­so­les­cence of ab­sence runs deeper. By de­priv­ing us of its bit­ter-sweet tang we lose a taste that was known keenly, and that shaped the in­te­rior lives. The pain of ab­sence gave rise to the ex­pe­ri­ence of long­ing that lies at the heart of ro­man­tic love. But do we re­ally know long­ing as an emo­tion? Our loved ones, or at least their sim­u­lacra, are never that far away.

Part­ing, for Shake­speare’s Juliet, was a ‘‘ sweet sor­row’’. The sor­row is in the sepa­ra­tion, the sweet­ness in the height­ened re­union. But if those two over-heated Veronese teens had been in pos­ses­sion of iphones they would have been tex­ting till dawn, and there’s no telling where that would lead. But more to the point, how do you cre­ate a love story when there are no im­ped­i­ments to that shame­less di­a­logue be­tween lovers that is the very stuff of true love: its fab­ric, its essence.

The word long­ing has a rather lovely et­y­mol­ogy en­twined in those Ger­manic tongues that we find un­fash­ion­able, de­spite the fact they nour­ish so much of our own lan­guage. Vari­a­tions on long­ing pop up in old English, Norse and high Ger­man.

If you drop long­ing into Ba­bel fish you get as the French equiv­a­lent de­sir ar­dent, which just goes to show what a lin­guis­tic won­der our long­ing is, man­ag­ing as it does to con­vey sepa­ra­tion (as length of time or spa­tial dis­tance), and, through lay­ers of emo­tional as­so­ci­a­tion, ab­sence and the un­re­quited de­sire it pro­vokes in the lover.

Of course long­ing, in English, can also sim­ply mean the more limited ar­dent de­sire, as in the French, or im­pa­tient de­sire (‘‘I’m long­ing to have a go’’).

I’m not try­ing to sug­gest that long­ing is an en­tirely pos­i­tive emo­tion, or that it is nec­es­sar­ily good for us. There is some­thing rather sickly about Matthew Arnold’s pas­sive yearn­ing in the lines:

Come to me in my dreams, and then By day I shall be well again! For then the night will more than pay The hope­less long­ing of the day.

And nostal­gia, of course, is a spe­cial form of patho­log­i­cal long­ing: long­ing for home.

But it’s well to re­mem­ber that de­sire un­der the strain of sepa­ra­tion is the main­stay of Jane Austen’s fic­tion. It sat­u­rates Ge­orge Eliot’s Mid­dle­march and Thomas Hardy’s fic­tional oeu­vre, as well as the Bronte sis­ters’ two mas­ter­pieces.

In the work of these canon­i­cal English nov­el­ists long­ing, in the sense of sepa­ra­tion en­dured, be­comes al­most heroic. Ro­mance, by this process, is trans­fig­ured. It be­comes tragedy. Long­ing also plays a part in the clas­si­cal and Ro­man­tic mu­sic reper­toire, in the work of Beethoven, Schu­bert and es­pe­cially Schu­mann.

I’m sure that we’ll be able to pro­duce art of great feel­ing, even when we’ve abol­ished long­ing. And yet we do seem in dan­ger of los­ing a taste for Juliet’s ‘‘ sweet sor­row’’. If ab­sence makes the heart grow fonder what hap­pens to the heart when we are never re­ally ab­sent? It doesn’t, I sus­pect, grow.

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